Tag Archives: Church

One of the greatest motivators of all

Sometimes I find it hard to stay motivated. If my confidence and energy is low, I can look to the author and perfecter of my faith and feel insignificant and feeble, rather than energised and encouraged. I feel small and weak, and in a world that seems full of people doing significant things, I feel profoundly mediocre. I can feel like it’s not worth trying anything because if I do it will go badly, or it just won’t matter in the bigness of this world.

This can be a general feeling, but also in my Christian life. Nobody will care about my testimony, what I have to say doesn’t matter, I can’t even get control of my sinfulness. I’m distracted and moody, emotional and lazy. I catch myself in pridefulness and all manner of other states that Jerry Bridges would call “respectable sins“.

It all makes me feel lost and in a mess. And who do you turn to at those times? I have my Christian community and my trusted friends of course. But there’s a promise in the Bible that, even on the surface, is amazing, but is even more encouraging when you dig deeper.

Hebrews 12:1-2a says “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

We often focus on the bit about throwing off the sins because, as humans, we tend to err on the side of the things that clearly tell us what we’re supposed to do. But the bit that I think is equally important is the “cloud of witnesses”.

Hebrews 11 gives a list of these witnesses who lived by faith. At first sight they are intimidating – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Rahab. Then judges, prophets and David himself. Great! A list of witnesses to remind me how horribly under par my life is.

But look again. All of the witnesses were not perfect – far from it in fact. Murderers, prostitutes, drunkards, liars, swindlers. The judges were all comparatively rubbish and David himself did some ghastly things. I haven’t done any of those things but it helps me to remember that these people are not the perfect witnesses that I might first think.

And then there are other witnesses mentioned, the tortured, the flogged, the imprisoned, the persecuted, poor and destitute – all mistreated for the sake of their faith. I have not had this misfortune (praise God) but this is starting to sound more like normal people – people just like me, who rose to the occasion on the strength of God.

But there are two things in particular that are important here. First, there is a cloud of these witnesses. Now for us, we might think “cloud” and envision fluffy bundles in a blue sky. But the Greek nephos is hardly used in the New Testament. Where it was more used was in Greek literature:

In a work by Herodotus who was an ancient Greek historian, he says “We have driven away so mighty a cloud [nephos] of enemies” when describing a battle in the Persian Wars. Homer in the Iliad says that “In front fared the men in chariots and thereafter followed a cloud [nephos] of footmen, a host past counting”.

A cloud of witnesses – and a cloud that has a military inference, and is a host past counting. Think about that:

Ah, burning cities, clashing armies, just another day in Rome: Total War.
Source: https://www.gamespot.com/articles/rome-total-war-exclusive-hands-on/1100-6105481/
Infantry Painting - Medieval Army in Battle - 15 by AM FineArtPrints
Source: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/medieval-army-in-battle-15-andrea-mazzocchetti.html
Source: https://cinefex.com/blog/dracula-untold-hob-army-final/

Imagine all those people who have come before us – as flawed and as broken as they are. Imagine they are shoulder to shoulder fighting for us. They are our army. And what does that tell us? It tells us we are not alone. It tells us that God has not left us unprotected.

The second thing that is significant is that when we look at these witnesses and try to measure up, we are looking at it all wrong. Those witnesses aren’t there because of who they are or what they did. They are there because of what their story tells us about God.

Through the stories of these people, we see God’s faithfulness. We see God’s grace. We see his mercy and love. We see God’s patience and his commitment to his people and his promises. We see God’s continuing work to provide support and protection for his people. For us.

These witnesses are not perfect. Many of them are just like us. They’ve done great things, they’ve done some pretty awful things. They are flawed and imperfect and broken – just like us. I find that fantastically encouraging. A cloud of perfect people might make me feel a bit self-conscious. Or it might be a barrier to me believing that they really are on my side because I am broken and flawed. Or it might make me focus on how perfect they are and how that is such an impossibly high bar.

But a cloud of witnesses who are just like me – well that’s a proper army. That makes me feel like I’m not alone. That sustains me. That motivates me. That makes me feel I can deal with my sinfulness. That helps me to know that I can stand before God, because I have all these people standing with me in whose lives God already worked and through whom his plans were brought into effect.

We must be a life-line for those in self-isolation

Whether you’re in Australia, the US, Italy, China, Singapore or Timbuktu, we are all facing the realities of the COVID-19, or corona virus, pandemic. I’m not going to go into the panic buying (although that is shocking) and I’m not going to post prayers as I hope that’s a feature of all our responses as Christians.

What I want to talk about is how we support people in isolation. At the moment that might not be so many, but the number may increase, and potentially quite dramatically.

Parents with kids may look on this with a heavy heart. Some who will be working from home might initially jump at the idea. Some introverts might even look forward to the idea of being able to catch up on all that reading.

But there’s a hidden risk in self-isolation that may only become apparent when we’re in it – and that is an impact to our emotional health and mental well-being.

There are four aspects of this:

  1. We need interaction. Humans are social creatures. Even for us introverts and ambiverts, we need contact and communication. For extroverts, who are energised by being around other people, being stuck in the home can be especially difficult. We can go about our daily routine, work-from-homers can hold our meetings and so on via connective technology, but we’re missing the communication that we get in church, at the play group or at the office that is of vital importance to emotional health and mental well-being. We miss the water-cooler talk, the chats over lunch, the side comments after something funny or annoying happens, the coffee runs, the post-weekend catch ups. In other words, the day-to-day nothingness that enriches our day in community with others. Without it for prolonged periods of time, this can become a slow track into adverse mental health. It provides fertile ground for people being in their own heads too much – unproductive and circular negative thinking – which can lead downwards into depression.
  2. We need a pressure valve. We work in industries and live lives that can involve high pressure situations, whether that means deadlines and aggressive project timeframes, or relentless energy being poured into aging parents or multiple children. One of our coping mechanisms can be the interaction with others in the same situation. It helps us to talk and laugh and blow off steam. Being in isolation can mean that coping mechanism is removed.
  3. People are experiencing fear on top of fear. There have been a lot of scary things happening in the last few months. There’s been the Amazonian and Australian bushfires, floods in Australia and the UK – and now this. These are real life events that we’re used to seeing in disaster movies. Except this is not Hollywood. This is real. This can cause very real feelings of fear and uncertainty. When people are dealing with this on top of their day-to-day real life, this can very quickly become hopelessness. And when people feel hopeless and helpless, they can begin to despair.
  4. The home may represent additional pressure. People’s home lives can come with extra stresses on a normal day, and more so if working/existing in isolation. There could be elderly parents to take care of and kids that becomes extra pressured if fixed within four walls. The home situation might not even be a safe one for them. The world outside the home could be the place that they go to every day that represents safety and security and fellowship. These people could be facing compounded pressures at home during this time that reduces their coping mechanisms. In a time of additional stress and pressure, it could even be a potentially more dangerous place for them.

This sounds very dramatic, but even a fraction of what I’m talking about can mean that we have people working and living in isolation in a way that can have long reaching effects.

As Christians, I would hope that we have a better handle on this supporting people even under normal conditions, let alone a crazy scary time like this. But even we might have to get more creative as we have to limit personal contact and practice social distancing.

What can we do? We need to check in with each other for no reason – create opportunities for that water-cooler talk. Think about doing that over facetime or Skype so you can have a cuppa and see each others faces.

Host a watch party so you can gather as people for something fun and people don’t feel alone. (Even, as a worker from home, host a watch party with you work team of a TED talk or something).

Go back to Old School days and send cards in the mail. Leave notes or flowers or small gifts at people’s doors. Call and pray with people over the phone. Maybe even link everyone in via Skype to have a Bible study – the point is to not just stay connected personally but to stay connected spiritually. When we are under pressure, when there is fear and uncertainty, our faith can take a battering. Remember in the Garden – “Did God really say….?”. All it takes is a shadow of doubt and our faith can fade into the noise of panic. Let God’s light shine in the darkness, even when we are hard pressed on all sides – and help each other to do it. Lets get creative in our care.

There are a lot of ways we can stay connected even when we are far apart. As a community of believers, this is an area we can excel. We are called to have mercy and compassion. Lets get creative with our application so in these uncertain times, we can glorify God and express His character through our outstanding and visible kindness and thoughtfulness.

What makes a “good man”? (Or a good anyone?)

I was going to call this blog “Don’t high-5 each other just because you never raped anyone”. OK that’s a super provocative title, but I wanted to get people’s attention. The other problem with that title, is that it only relates to men and the issue that I wanted to talk about is actually an everybody-issue.

Let me explain.

I was reading an article recently. That’s it – not a madly exciting thing to happen, but its what it said. It talked about what makes a good man. As a mother of boys this is important to me. One of the criteria pulled me up short – “A good man will never abuse you”.

When did that become a criteria for being a good man? Have we become so used to despicable behavior that the mere absence of it is considered “good”?

So let me be clear:

Not hitting, stalking, raping or killing, or in any other way abusing someone, isn’t “good” behavior – its normal behavior. As humans, these are things we have, through time, collectively agreed are the opposite of good behavior. We have framed laws and protections against people who engage in them. To now be at the point in history that we would define someone’s goodness by the absence of abnormal behavior makes me heart-sick. And I am outraged on behalf of my sons and all the young girls out there that we would have them think that not being raped or abused by someone makes them a good man.

It would be easy to make this piece about culture-whinging and man-bashing but that’s not my jam. My aim with all these observations is to look at where we can get a course corrective that is positive and collaborative. The place always for this is the Bible. What does the Bible say is a good man?

Here’s some examples:

  • good man obtains favor from the Lord, but a man of evil devices he condemns Prov 12:2
  • The backslider in heart will be filled with the fruit of his ways, and a good man will be filled with the fruit of his ways. Prov 14:14
  • for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. Acts 11:24
  • And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” John 7:12

According to these passages, a good man “obtains favor”. How does a man obtain favor? Isaiah 66:2 says “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”

A good man will be filled with the fruit of his (good) ways. This looks like its saying a man reaps what he sows, but there’s more to it. The word translated as “filled” is the same for the backslider and the good man. It is the Hebrew saba and can mean both “satisfied” and “paid back”. From the context it appears apparent that the backslider will be paid back and the good man will be satisfied. How is one satisfied? As famed preacher Jonathan Edwards said: The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. Check out some of the Psalms which give us a fuller picture of this:

As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness. Psalm 17:15

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. Psalm 16:11

The Acts passage describes Barnabas as he goes to Antioch. As a good man, he is full of the Holy Spirit and faith. And in John 7, we see that some saying Jesus is a good man being opposed by those who say he can’t be a good man because he is leading people astray.

This just starts to build a picture of what a good man is and gives me, as a mother of boys, a foundation for building my boys in character. We see a definite pattern here of being in God, knowing Him, seeking Him, having faith, humility, integrity and strength.

Of course the person who exemplifies these characteristics is in God himself, in His son, Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice for us, washes us clean and we get to start again, rebuilding a new life in Him. He sent the Spirit to help us in this growth in Christ-likeness and we are to be led by Him. This is what Paul discussed in Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

This. THIS should be the criteria that defines a good man – and a good woman.

We must always remember that the air we breathe can influence the course of our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes. This cultural air proliferates everything in our lives through TV and radio, music, film, advertising and social media. As Christians we have a bigger picture than that and our God is bigger. And we are His image-bearers.

If we are to live in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice, we must assess ourselves against these criteria – not the absence of despicable behavior, but a passionate pursuit of God above all else, and the deliberate growth in Christ-likeness.

And if we are deficient or immature in these areas, we need each other as Christian brothers and sisters, to help each other grow. We must ask each other – what would gentleness look like in our contexts? What would self-control involve? Are there things to repent of in these areas? If we truly look at ourselves, are there things we need to change, develop, mature? This is the higher bar. It takes courage, self-reflection, honesty, humility – a big God, and trusted Christian friends.

God commands us to be different to our culture. And looking at our culture, our sons and daughters need us to be different too.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. James 1:22-25

If God is real, why hasn’t he shown himself? (Mark 9:1-13)

This is an enduring question – for both Christians and non-Christians. For Christians, this can be a question spoken in pain and grief as we seek God’s presence among our trauma. For non-Christians this can be a logical question – if he is real, why doesn’t he just show himself and then we can dispense with all the doubt?

The thing is though, he did show himself. I mean, God was actually with his people in the wilderness and they still grumbled and complained. In that sense, how much evidence is enough? I get that non-believers dismiss the evidence of the Bible. It’s not an unbiased view. But it is the view of the people who believe they saw God. So I understand that people wouldn’t believe unless they themselves had been the witness, but we must allow for the validity of other people’s own experience. We believe things people tell us without witnessing it ourselves all the time. A friend of mine told me about a terrible week she’d had. I believe her, even though I wasn’t a fly on the wall.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should believe everything blindly. That would be unwise. If a biased media tells us something, we should question. If a corrupt authority tells us something, we should fact check. But in checking these things out for ourselves, we must allow for the possibility that its true. We are a very cynical generation. We tend to jump to a conclusion of falsehood almost as a faith position. If we hear something from [insert political leader’s name of your choice here] we may believe or disbelieve them on principle – because we have faith in our position. Its something we believe without any particular evidence either way.

In the same way, some people believe what is in the Bible because it is the eye witness testimony of people who were there. Others won’t believe even if God was travelling with them in the wilderness. That’s to be expected – it’s been the case for thousands of years.

What we see in Mark’s gospel in Chapter 9 is a famous episode called “The Transfiguration”. It’s where Jesus is transformed:

There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4). In Luke, this is expanded to “as he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29) and in Matthew’s gospel he says “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2).

On first reading this episode sounds like Jesus and Elijah and Moses are having a bit of a group meeting before the move towards Jerusalem and the cross. Perhaps they’re chatting about how things are going or if everything is going according to plan.

Don’t believe it. Nothing here is by accident. The transformation is deliberate. It is a deeply profound episode because people needed to understand three things:

  1. Jesus was not just a man but something else as well. The transformation to this shining being shows the supernatural nature of his humanity.
  2. People needed to see more clearly who he was and who he wasn’t. If he is in the presence of Elijah and Moses here, then he is neither of those people. We have seen in previous passages that there was much conjecture over Jesus’s identity. This shows us clearly that he is someone and something else.
  3. Jesus is in the presence of God. The references to Jesus’ face shining is a reference to Moses’ radiance after his meetings with God (cf. Exodus 34:29-35). Jesus is speaking to God, in person.

Just after this short episode, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). God himself! And this takes us back to Mark 1:11 where God, during Jesus’ baptism had said “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Why repeat this? Because something new is happening. He spoke these words at the baptism as Jesus’ ministry began. He speaks the words here as we begin the journey to Jerusalem. And the witness is to Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at this episode. Something special is being disclosed to these three.

But Jesus tells them not to say anything until after he has died and risen again. They don’t really understand so instead ask Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11). This might seem random but Elijah had been mentioned in Malachi’s prophecies. Malachi had said that God “will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5). And if they had just seen Elijah…..what did that mean…..?

Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” (Mark 9:12-13)

This passage is difficult, but can be simply put as the restoration predicted as coming from Elijah’s return will be achieved via the suffering of the Son of Man. The reason it is difficult it because Peter and the rest of the Jews were expecting “restoration” to mean something awesome and celebratory and politically liberating. The truth is much harder to swallow.

So not only did God the Father show himself in this passage, we see God the Son here too. God, with Peter – poor dim-witted Peter and the disciples who could not possibly understand what everything meant until they had seen the cross and the resurrection. But blessed Peter who tried and failed and tried again and followed faithfully. God in person with Peter – and Mark writing Peter’s eye witness account.

God was there. He did show himself.

Do we believe blindly? Partially I suppose. I wasn’t there. But there is enough evidence within the gospel as a historical document to show that it is an eye witness account and not a fable or a story. And there is enough evidence of the resurrection to make me stop and look at what happened in the lead up to it. You see, after the resurrection, hundreds of believers were persecuted, exiled, tortured and executed in the most horrific ways – and not a single one said that their accounts weren’t true. If this wasn’t true, I just don’t believe that so many would suffer for the sake of a lie. And these were eye witnesses – not later converts who died for faith. These were followers of Jesus dying over their very memories.

So I believe that God showed himself to Peter and the others. I believe that God walked the earth with his disciples. I believe that he went to the cross for me. I believe that he rose again and now reigns in heaven and walks with me every day.

And while non-believers are still looking for proof, I am content that there is enough evidence to base my faith on. On days when I am seeking his face in my circumstances, I don’t have to go far to remember that God is with us.

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: Studies in the Gospel of Mark

 

It’s not the ends of the banner that are important – it’s what it says in between (Mark 8:1-13)

We always want a sign. Sometimes its because we need to know where we fit in a world that feels big and chaotic. Sometimes its because at times of great uncertainty, we need the comfort of a signpost that shows us where we are going and what the plan is.

This is a completely normal and natural anxiety and yearning for order. It’s why horoscopes are so popular. And it’s not a new problem. Throughout the Old Testament, God warns the Israelites not to engage with spiritualists and diviners. It displays a lack of faith in God. It means they weren’t trusting in God’s promises or his faithfulness. They took things into their own hands. Without any apparent signs from God, they went to find their own signs. And, if they were anything like us, kept looking for signs until they found the one they liked.

I stopped reading my horoscope when I became a Christian (it seemed fairly pointless after you know where you’re going) but I remember when I did read them, that if one was a bit generic (funny that, eh?) then I google another horoscope. And if that one didn’t sound that good, I’d look for another one.

The thing is, the Israelites did have signs. They had God actually with them. So did the people gathered around Jesus. God was actually with them. He was performing sings and wonders all over the place. It was pretty hard to miss. And yet they did.

The place we’ve reached in our Bible studies takes us to a story that seems awfully familiar. In Mark 8:1-13, Jesus feeds the four thousand. In Mark 6:30-44, Jesus had fed the five thousand. Is this truth or literary device to make a point? Both would seem likely.

As a truth, what does it tell us?

During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied.

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present.” (Mark 8:1-9)

It’s a miracle. It points to the fact that Jesus is something more than human. It’s reminiscent of God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness after the exodus – as they followed and grumbled and complained and God had compassion on them. In Jesus’ compassion, he gave in such abundance that there was seven basketfuls left over.

As a literary device, what does it say? The story and wording is very similar to narrative in Mark 6. This device is like bookends – to draw attention to to what sits between. And what sits between the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000?

  • The feeding of the 5,000
    1. Jesus walks on water and calms the storm even though the disciples hearts are hard
    2. Jesus teaches against shallow observance of surface religion and a focus on cleanliness of the heart – re-teaching the intention of God’s commands and away from human rules
    3. Jesus heals the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and teaches the order of salvation, and making it clear that the gospel will be for the Gentiles also
    4. Jesus heals the deaf and mute man
  • The feeding of the 4,000

The feeding stories are the two ends of the banner. What the stories in between tell us is the important part. It tells us that he has the same power as God (point 1), he has the authority to speak for God and interpret God’s communication (point 2), he also has the power and authority to communicate God’s plan (point 3) and his healing activities are foretold by the great prophets (point 4, as foretold by Isaiah).

Taken on their own, the feeding stories are marvelous but people could have interpreted Jesus’ role as a new Moses, who was God’s representative in the wilderness during the provision of manna, quail and water. The stories between the two ends show that Jesus’ role cannot be misinterpreted (for those who have ears to hear that is).

And yet, people do misinterpret. In verse 11-13, after the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 and all the signs in between, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him for a sign. He tells them there will be no sign. Not because he will not give them any, but because he has given them many but their hard hearts stop them from seeing them. They will accept no sign even though there are signs all around them and God is right in front of them.

I wonder reading this, what signs do I miss? I am a believer and (with God’s help) a growing disciple. But still, where is my hearty hardened? What do I miss? Do I get so wrapped up in my anxieties and worries that I fail to see where God has moved powerfully in my life?

Sometimes, I think we need to strip things back and re-remember who Jesus is. I need to remember how powerful and how present God is in my life. I can get so worried about not knowing whats going to happen or where I fit in that I can try to take things into my own hands. I organise and manage and change the routine and work things so I feel in control of where things are going. Obviously I need to make sure my kids are well and happy and healthy and everyone gets to where they need to be and all that. But outside of that, anything that crosses the line into taking power away from God (as if I could!) shows where I am not trusting Him. As difficult as that is, I need to stop doing that.

How? I need to develop my God-vision. I need to see the signs. I need to be observant and see the hundred little things every day that show me how God is there.

So everyday, take a moment. Think about the day. See where God moved in your life. Remember Him. Remember the cross. Remember God’s promises. Remember His faithfulness.

 

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.

Is fruitfulness something we do, or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)

We humans love secrets. Secrets form the basis of most click-bait on the internet. We love whats new and novel, we love to be in the know. But only to a certain point it seems. If it’s a secret that means we know what others don’t, we can’t wait to hear it. If it’s a secret that means we have activities and obligations, suddenly everybody is backing away and not making eye contact.

I know I get nervous when I sense I’m getting myself into something that’s going to require my time and effort. Life is full. Like, it’s FULL. I work full time, I’m a single mum, I’m studying part time, oh, and I’m a blogger. Anything else? Nope. Nope. Nope.

I don’t think I’m alone in this and I certainly don’t have a monopoly on having a full life. We have learned to fill the gaps in our lives with stuff. Work, overtime, kids, pets, sports, housework, caring for older family members, second jobs….the list of things we can fill our time with is endless. So when we sense an obligation coming, our hearts sink. Even in our church life we can get “full up” – Bible study, pastoral care, making a meal for that friend who’s having a hard week, checking in on people, church events, prayer triplets….. There can be so much church “stuff” that this can feel overwhelmingly like a chore too.

Jesus himself said that we should be fruitful. This statement in enmeshed with the “secret of the kingdom of God”. Ohh a secret! Oh. Fruitfulness. <heart sinks>

But are these chores and time fillers what Jesus meant by fruitfulness? Is it something we’re supposed to do?

Let’s start with the secret of the kingdom of God. What is the secret? Strangely, the secret is the Parable of the Sower. You may know this parable:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:3-8)

It’s one of those parables we hear heaps and so tend to skip over. It can also be taken out of context. So lets get back to basics and see what it’s really saying. The “seed” is the word of the gospel. The “soil” Jesus described are four different receptions to the gospel:

  1. For some, when they hear the gospel, it doesn’t even get planted. The seed falls by the wayside and doesn’t take root at all. So we have some who hear the gospel and reject it.
  2. For others, the gospel initially finds reception. But it seems when things get tough and the seed is put under pressure, the roots are not deep enough to withstand the heat.
  3. For others, the seed falls on soil that is choked with weeds and thorns. This means the gospel never has a chance to really go down deep. The seed is planted it seems, but never bears fruit.
  4. Finally, some seed is thrown on good soil. The result is fruitfulness disproportionate to the number of seed.

There are several pointers and questions in here. First, the seed is thrown out in abundance. It is not carefully planted one by one. It is cast out liberally across all ,and any soil types. Does that mean the “soil type” is up to us? Do we have to be the right soil type to hear God’s word? I don’t think this is the point of the parable but it is worth a quick excursus to explore this point.

It is not incumbent on us have the right kind of heart. God prepares the way, and just because he foreknows who will be receptive, doesn’t mean he doesn’t cast out the seed for everyone.

However, when the word is cast out, we rely on godly teachers to help us make sense of it. This is why ministers are held to so much of a higher standard (see James 3:1). We need our ministers to help us appreciate the gospel so it can go deeper into our hearts. So we can read it, understand it, meditate on it, prayer about it, apply to our lives and be discerning and wise about it. Without this help, our roots are shallow and we are at spiritual risk.

In addition, there are two things at play here: Faith and Fruitfulness. Faith is where the seed takes root (Soils 3 and 4) but fruitfulness is where the good soil provides an environment for faith to bloom and replicate the seed (Soil 4). What the parable implies is that it is this good soil that is our goal. Truly good faith will produce fruitfulness.

Does this mean we have “stuff to do”? Yes and no. If we have received the gospel and the roots have gone down deep, fruitfulness will come from a response of the heart. Like a knee-jerk reflex. When the patella is tapped, the knee flinches. It’s a direct connection and is a reflex – not a conscious decision. What we aim for in our discipleship is this kind of reflex. We see a need, and our hearts are so gospel aligned, that our response is unconscious and immediate.

So yes, it is stuff we do. We care, we pastor, we speak, we pray and we throw out our own seeds.

But also no. It is not stuff we do, it is something that we are. By being gospel aligned, our hearts change. Our hearts determine what words we speak and how we behave. It’s what makes us look different. So our fruitfulness also comes from just who we are.

But this is the secret to the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11) and it has been given to us. so what are we to do with this?

First, we cannot know for sure what kind of soil we are (or were when we heard the gospel). We can pray that we are good soil. We can pray for God’s help in the Spirit to be good soil. But one marker of our soil is our fruitfulness.

How can we tell if we are fruitful? By our lives and by our deeds. Does your life look different to the world? For example, do you notice that you swear less than the non-Christian people around you? Is what you read, listen to and look at different to the rest of the world? Are you boundaries different? Do you pray? Do you self-reflect? Do you repent? If the answer to any or all of these is Yes, you are guarding your heart and the difference will show in your attitudes and behaviors. It will show in the choices you make and in how you conduct your life.

And it will show in your deeds. Do you give have a spirit of generosity? Do you give to your church and to missions? Do you give to charities and support causes? Do you give of your time and of yourself to support people around you? Do you open your home to fellowship with people? Do you share words of the gospel as you can, among those you meet? Deeds are an integral part of the faith – not as a means of salvation (which we already have) but as evidence of our faith. James talks about this, explaining that our deeds will be a product of a changed heart (cf. James 2:14-26).

What gets in the way of doing this? Jesus himself tells us what faithful but unfruitful soil looks like:

Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mark 4:18-19)

We don’t know if this is the soil we were when we heard the gospel. But we can work now to ensure we are avoiding and reducing the worries of this life and chasing wealth and other things that we tend to idolise. This means we must remain self-reflective and we must remain vigilant of our hearts. This doesn’t mean being Puritanical. For example, we don’t have to hate money and fun. We just need to be wise and intentional in how we approach them. It’s not bad or ungodly to want or to make money. Idolising it and letting it rule our lives is.

Similarly, in looking at what soil we were/are, we can’t know or assume what “soil” other people are as we share our lives and the gospel with them. Remember, the sower threw out his seeds liberally on all soil types. He didn’t select the right soil and focus on that. We must not make that mistake. We must throw out the seeds of the gospel liberally, making no assumptions as to its reception. Part of our fruitfulness is obedience. In obedience, we throw out our seeds – whether that be direct expressions of the gospel, or servant evangelism, or living by Christian example – even blogging.

That’s the extent of our job. We don’t judge the reception. We just throw out the seeds. Let’s face it. If our soil type was judged before we received, none of us might be here.

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

Jesus made us a new family – Does church really feel like that? (Mark 3:13-35)

Churches can be like an old fashioned village. Small, parochial, cliquey. Alternately, they can work like a well-oiled machine. Or, there can be different political “factions” that oppose each other over everything from church finances to how the biscuits should be put out at morning tea. They can be hubs of support and love and care. And they can be enclaves of grumbling and toxicity.

What we forget among the brokenness, and even among the awesomeness, is that our church is supposed to be our family. We say it, of course, but do we really know what it means? What did it mean in the early church – for those who knew Jesus? And what did Jesus mean it to be?

In the early church they were suspected and accused of immorality and incest because their doctrine was love and they called each other “brother” and “sister”. A second century document outlines a mock debate that discusses the principle charges. In response to “we also hear that you meet in secret, even before sunrise, and the gross immorality that we hear goes on in those places is repulsive — especially the incest.

The second party says: “If you came to one of our meetings you would find that the lovemaking and intimacy you are so quick to imagine is of a totally different nature. We meet before sunrise because we are working people. We have jobs to go to. We do not always meet in secret, but we have no temples or synagogues, so we use somebody’s home which has enough room. We call one another brother and sister and pledge to love one another because that is what our Lord commanded us to do. And we greet one another and bless one another with a holy kiss, not out of lust but out of genuine love and concern for one another. Come and you will see that we demand the highest standards of morality among all who join us.

Source: https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/why-early-christians-were-despised-11629610.html

The concept of “family” for the Israelites centred on the household – that is, the immediate family, extended family and slaves and servants. All these made up the household. Outwards from this centre was the clan, which could refer to a group of households tied by kinship. Outwards from this orbit was the tribe, which included multiple clans within one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each circle was bonded by close ties of kinship, patronage and obligation. We see this working throughout The Old Testament – Boaz was a kinsman redeemer to Ruth, under Jewish rules of kinship and obligation for example.

What we see in Mark 3:13-35 is a series of scenes:

  • 3:13-19 Jesus calls the 12
  • 3:20-21 Jesus’ family Part 1
    • 3:22-30 Conflict with the Pharisees
  • 3:31-35 Jesus’ family Part 2

The order of events is important here. In the calling of the 12, Jesus draws his “family” to him – and they are chosen. And, they include the one who will betray him. Jesus knows this when he calls him. I find that staggering. As God, Jesus knew this. As a man, I really feel for him. Imagine picking the people who you would work with forever, and included is the person who you knew for a fact would stab you in the back. How would you go interacting with them, working with them, loving them, knowing that they would do that to you?

Anyway, it’s significant that Jesus calls 12 – an embryonic new Israel, representative of a new covenant.

Next comes what is known as a “Markan sandwich” – its a literary device where Mark starts a story, then puts in another one, and then finishes the first story afterwards. So a meat in between two bits of bread if you will. Its a literary device but it has a purpose in bringing to light something the author wants us to see, so lets dig deeper.

In the first scene, we see “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat.  When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Just as his own family say that Jesus is out of his mind, we switch to a scene in which the Pharisees – the leaders of Jesus’ Jewish “family” – say that he is possessed by Beelzebub. But what is it about this conflict with the Pharisees that provides the key to interpreting the “Markan sandwich” literary device?

The Pharisees say he is nuts because he is driving out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Note that they don’t disagree that Jesus is driving out demons – he seems to be doing this pretty successfully. They are arguing about in who’s name Jesus is doing it. That is remarkable. The miracles are real. They just argue about the authority behind them.

Jesus, by way of explanation, gives two responses. The first is “How can Satan drive out Satan?” and the second is “no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” The former says basically, how can you have a civil war with both parties on the same side? They would just be killing each other for no reason and with no winner. So what the Pharisees are saying makes no sense. They are saying the spirits are from the devil and Jesus’s authority comes from the devil. Nope. No sense.

In the latter response, Jesus gives more. He is saying that something or someone has already gone ahead of him and tied up the strong man. Then the house can be robbed. So he’s saying that the devil has already been tied up and then Jesus can complete the work of casting him out. The devil has already been defeated! But what Jesus says next is truly astonishing.

“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

What does blasphemy against the Spirit mean? Many conflate this with “taking the Lord’s name in vain” which minimises this statement to a slip of the tongue. In the context of what Jesus is saying here though, blaspheming against the Spirit is a rejection or a refusal to acknowledge the existence and work of the Spirit in people’s hearts and minds. The devil is defeated by the work of our triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To deny the Spirit, is to deny the Father – which is the eternal sin.

From here we go back to Jesus’ immediate family. Jesus’ mother and brothers had arrived. In Mark 6:3 his brothers are identified as James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. James, it should be noted, was not one of the disciples, but later became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was martyred in the early 60s AD. At this point however, James and Mary and the rest of the family, were definitely not acolytes.

Both Jesus’ immediate family, and religious family, say he is out of his mind. This whole scene started with Jesus choosing the new representatives of the new covenant. And ends with his assertion that all those who do the will of God are his family. Again, this “family” includes Judas – his betrayer – and I’ll bet it includes all manner of other great people, boring people, annoying people, nice people and awesome people. They are not a group of shiny holy Christians surrounded by doves and soft lighting. They are the family of God, joined together in Jesus. This is the point of the Markan sandwich – showing the ties that bond the family of God outweigh the earthly ties of our other circles. This is a new society, a new covenant, a new age.

If we look around our churches, do they feel like family? Bearing in mind, that our church family is similarly not meant to be a perfect soft-lighting tableau either, but a rag-tag mixed bag of the good and the bad and the faintly annoying. BUT they ARE our family. We are bonded to them by Jesus – a source stronger and more profound than any other. And we will be with them in heaven.

This can be difficult, especially for those whose churches and ministers have disappointed them. I have no answer for that, and, in love, I pray everyone finds their home in a church that will love you exactly how you are and where you’re at.

But hurts meted out to us by the church or those who lead it, cannot drown out the scriptures. And Jesus says clearly that those who do the will if God are his family. However, in this Jesus is not abolishing his earthly family. He is however, establishing his church family along lines that would have been shocking at the time. The assembled “family” was not drawn along kinship or household lines, it was open to Jew and Gentile, any race and gender, and even cut across hierarchical lines. This is a new family whose primary allegiance was to God and whose citizenship was in heaven.

This includes us.

All who do God’s will are in Jesus’ family. That includes you. And what is God’s will? Go to Matthew 22:36-40 and Micah 6:8 which Jesus paraphrases in Mathew 23:23. Look at them. Meditate on them. Pray about them. They are not how you get into Jesus’ family – you’re already in it. These are the bedrock of our discipleship. These are the foundations of our familial obligations.

Look afresh at your church. They are you’re family. And look to your discipleship. Maybe it needs a kick start. Maybe it’s something to share with your Christian family. But above all, know that you are already in Jesus’ family. When he said “whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” he was talking about you.

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

The who, the what and the why (Mark 1:21-45)

One thing that I get terrifically irritated by is when someone hijacks my message. I choose my words carefully, I try and articulate myself thoughtfully and then someone willfully mis-communicates me. For example, you can be in a work setting and you present your opinion on solving a particular problem. Someone else chimes in enthusiastically “Yes, yes, I see! I think what you’re saying Julia, is that its all Eric’s fault!” Suddenly everyone is whipped up into a frenzy and there’s practically a hiring freeze on anyone called Eric or sounding anything like Eric.

This can happen in so many settings. At home, with school mums and teachers, and even at church. Sometimes its how the words are offered and sometimes it depends on what ears you listen with.

Note: This is a stand alone blog that doesn’t depend on any other piece. But it runs as part of an online Bible study in Mark and throughout there are links to previous observations. You can dip in and out or start at the beginning if you like. If not, that’s also fine – you don’t need to have started at the beginning to be able to get into this blog.

In today’s passage, Jesus knows what ears people are listening with and is careful to craft what he is communicating. Last week we saw it all started with a bang – like a big opening musical number. Jesus has been very publicly identified as the Messiah, and the Son of God. We saw that these two roles were not necessarily linked in the Jewish consciousness at the time. The Messiah was just someone to be sent by God – not necessarily his Son. They were expecting a prophet, or another David – a knight in shining armor who would arrive on flaming chariots and drive out the oppressive Romans.

In the passage from verses 21-45, Jesus makes some very clear and pointed statements about himself which links him to deeper messages expressed in Old Testament prophecies.

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In verses 21-28, Jesus drives out demons. Now, we see in other places other people driving out demons (check out Luke 9:49) so this doesn’t necessarily announce Jesus as anything truly spectacular. The difference here is that the demons know Jesus. They know who he is. How would the spirits and demons know who he is? In James 2:19, James says to his audience “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that.” The demons are from the spiritual realm – they know the one who is from God and is God. While demons may be driven out by others, they do not know them.

Jesus however has authority. The people were amazed at his teaching (Mk 1:22) because he had authority. We would associate that with someone who has qualifications to teach. But Mark says the people were amazed because Jesus was not as the teachers of the law. The Greek, exousia which is translated here as “authority” carries more weight than we assume. It carries with it a sense of authority delegated by God. It means Jesus’ words were heard by the people and they knew this was no ordinary teaching. The words carried the weight of God himself.

So we had the big opening musical number that announced Jesus’ presence. Now we see he has the authority of God and demons recognise him. Could Jesus be the avenging angel of God come to save the Jews?

Here’s where it gets really interesting. Verses 29-40 remind us particularity of Isaiah 35:5-6. Here, Isaiah prophecies that “the eyes of the blind [will] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” These are the very signs of the Messiah in whom, Isaiah 35:2 says “they will see the glory of the Lordthe splendor of our God.” And here is Jesus in vv29-40, healing “many who had various diseases.” (Mark 1:34)

But healing people is not why Jesus came. In verse 28 Jesus says “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” He came to preach the gospel. The healing is so people might know that he is the Messiah. It is so he might communicate that in him, people are seeing the very glory and splendor of God.

But in the same significant passage of Isaiah, the prophecy continues “your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Is. 35:4). This is what the Jews were expecting. Yes! A bit of vengeance and some victory on the battlefield. Some smiting and some slaying! Of course we, on this side of the cross, can read this from the perspective of Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s righteous judgement. But 2,000 years ago, Jews were looking for a Thor-type hero to come dashing in on a chariot.

This is what Jesus had to avoid. Because it was a very real risk that people, in hearing with ears of desperate hope, could hijack his message and his ministry. In the gospel of John, we read that “after the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say,Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15).

So, Jesus is communicating his messages, but he has to do it carefully – spoon feeding his hearers so they have time to adjust their cultural expectations to be able to hear and understand the truth of why he had come. They were expecting a prophet and a king. They were not expecting God himself, made human, to sacrifice himself for the world. That’s why, when Jesus heals the man with leprosy in Mark 1:40-45, Jesus told him not to tell anyone. Jesus needed to control the message as much as possible. He told the healed leper to present himself to the priests (for giggles check out Leviticus 14:1-32 where people cleansed of skin diseases had to be “cleared” by the priest to re-enter community). But the healed man was not to tell anyone else (which of course he did).

So the thread of this is:

  1. Jesus presence is announced
  2. We begin to see that he is from God by his authority
  3. His actions realise the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6
  4. Which leads us to realise that we are seeing the very splendor and glory of God (Isaiah 35:2)
  5. Jesus has come to enact God’s vengeance and judgement (Isaiah 35:4)
  6. But not in the way that the people think and so the message has to be carefully controlled and communicated. People need to be able to understand and follow along because –
  7. In Isaiah 35:8-10 Isaiah had continued his prophecy “and a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Jesus is not just here to drive out the Romans. Jesus is here to preach the good news. There is a way, a journey. This is so much bigger than anyone could have anticipated. This is a heart journey.

At this point, Mark’s readers must have been asking each other “what the….?” and “what is this “way”?” Their minds must have been absolutely blown. They must have been on the edge of their seats trying to put it all together in their minds.

This is exactly where the disciples must have been. Everything they thought they knew is kind of right but sort of wrong. Who is this guy? And where is this going?

 

Post me your comments and questions and lets get some online chat going!! And if you want to follow along, I’ll post the next online Bible study about the same time next week 🙂