Tag: #hope

Loved, saved, freed and given a voice (Mark 7:31-37)

One of the things I have struggled with in the past is feeling that I have no voice. In an era where there are so many platforms and outlets to speak your piece and express your opinion, I have felt that my voice was actually stifled and ignored. It’s a horrible feeling when that happens. It means your views, opinions, concerns, fears and emotions become nothing.

And maybe that’s been you too. Maybe you’re in a job where your boss or colleague dismisses your opinion constantly, making you feel invisible. Maybe you’re in a relationship where, if you express your emotions you’re met with an eye roll and a shake of the head and a turned back. Maybe you’re in a friendship group where you fear expressing yourself honestly in case the others turn on you.

Or maybe in your church there are things you want to talk about, or ask questions about, but you worry you are a lone voice and everyone will think you’re crazy.

Or maybe you have things you need to talk about because things are damaging you – and you don’t feel that you can, or don’t feel like you will be cared for or believed, or that there might be repercussions that you just can’t face.

And so that leaves us heart sore, feeling the physical pain of not being able to be honest, not being able to speak the truth. Feeling the frustration, the sadness, the loneliness.

It’s amazing how much of our identity is bound up with our ability to express ourselves – our ability to be heard.

Jesus talks about this a lot. He says several times that hearing is as much a spiritual thing as it is a physical thing (see Mark 4:9 and 4:23). We want to be heard because it is a mark of our personal expression. Jesus wants to be heard because it is a matter of salvation.

But in today’s passage, the two needs are met in one.

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:31-37

For such a short passage, there’s a lot in here. The man was deaf and so lived in silence. He couldn’t hear his friends or loved ones. He couldn’t hear the sound of lazy insects buzzing on a summer day, or the sound of a baby’s first laugh, or hear the water lapping on the shores, or singing or music. And without hearing, his voice was impaired. Whatever he wanted to say, couldn’t be said. What he felt couldn’t be adequately communicated. And he was stuck like that. Forever. Never hearing, never having a voice. Never being able to express himself. Never being heard.

Jesus takes the man to one side. The privacy makes the moment more intimate. Jesus is not a performing monkey. This is a moment of intense power and compassion between just two people. The compassion we see in Jesus’ physical touch – especially for this man who cannot hear what Jesus is saying.

Why the spit? It’s not like Jesus needs anything to perform his miracles. Spit was often seen in the ancient world as having magical or medicinal powers apparently. In Roman writings we see people relating that the spit of a famous or important person had special powers. I’m not sure that is what Jesus is communicating, but I think it sends a message that it’s something that he did. Jesus didn’t have to do anything but then would people have believed it was him? At least this way, as with other actions we have seen when he healed others, the people see Jesus definitely did something and there was a definite result – the mans’ hearing is returned and his voice is restored.

The words that Mark uses here are reminiscent of Isaiah and there is a deliberate reference to Isaiah 35:5-6 “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” The new age has come. Jesus is God’s own son, come to usher in God’s kingdom. We had been told this in Mark 1:15 “the time has come, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!

This encounter with the living God, is a sign that God’s kingdom is truly here. For the man though, it is an encounter that changed his whole life. Jesus had compassion and healed him, loved him, saved him – restored him before God – and gave him a voice.

Our voice is one of the most significant things we possess. With it, we can proclaim the good news and praise God. We can build people up – and we can tear each other down. Our God is a speaking God, so it should be no surprise that our voices can be disproportionately powerful.

It also means that without our voice, we are diminished disproportionately also. And we feel it. We feel small and irrelevant.

God gave us ears to hear and gave us our voices, just as he did the man in today’s passage. We must use them. And we must allow and empower others to use theirs.

We must never be afraid to speak God’s truth. We must not be afraid to explore how God’s truth is applied in our lives and in our world. That means we listen, we explore, we respect. We must never make others feel as though their voice has no place or no value. In all our interactions, we should be caring and respectful.

And if you are reading this and feel like you are in a position where your voice is stifled or taken from you – know this: God gave you ears to hear and a voice to speak. Please seek out people in God’s community. Seek outlets and platforms that will allow you to express yourself and ask questions and speak and continue to learn and grow in him.

Even if some people around you would rather have a diminished form of you, God wants all of you. Do not see yourself as those people see you. See yourself as God sees you – beautiful, whole, loved.

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.

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)

What will the “kingdom of God” be like? (Mark 4:21-34)

I like to think about what heaven will look like. Partially that’s because my kids ask me, and partially it’s because when I’m really tired – like, really tired – I like to imagine what it will be like when there is perfect rest and peace. I’ve written about this before (you can read “Praying for peace when you can’t even finish this sentence” here). This is a very human approach though – I’m tired, what will heaven be like? That is not really the question that Jesus answers though.

Jesus, in this passage, gives four parables that specifically describe the kingdom of God. And they don’t answer the question I have. Jesus however, does provide answers.

The first parable is the Parable of the Lamp: “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” (Mark 4:21-22)

A lamp is to bring light. The kingdom, the gospel, is not meant to be hidden. In addition, there is an ambiguity in the Greek grammar and what has been translated “whatever is concealed” is more correctly “whatever was concealed”. If this is the case, what this parable describes is the kingdom (in Jesus) is now being brought into the open in these parables.

The second is the analogy of the Measure: “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (vv 24-25)

The easy way of saying this is that you reap what you sow. If you listen openly and eagerly, Jesus’ teaching will provide enormous insight. For those who listen with hardened hearts, they will hear but not understand. To this we’ll return.

The third is the parable of the Growing Seed: “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (vv 26-29)

Just because every day seems the same, doesn’t mean the kingdom isn’t growing. But if they are complacent, the harvest when it comes will be a surprise. We must know that the kingdom is growing – and that at some point judgement will come. We must be aware and ready and help others be ready too.

The fourth is the parable of the Mustard Seed: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (vv 31-32)

This final of the four images shows us the kingdom growing disproportionately to its small beginnings. In this, we see God’s sovereignty clearly at work.

So when we wonder “what is the kingdom of God like?”, the answer is, from this passage:

  • It is a light, meant to illuminate;
  • It is to be revealed, and so we need to listen expectantly and responsively;
  • Once sown, it keeps growing, slowly but surely – and there will be a last day of harvest/judgement;
  • The kingdom will be enormous and disproportionate to its small beginnings.

On the face of it, this could seem disappointing. I want to know whether the kingdom looks like its in a nice rural setting or by the sea, and if everyone I know will be there. But I don’t need to know that. I need to know what Jesus is telling me. I need to know that the kingdom is the light by which the rest of the world can be seen. I need to know that I need to listen in great measure, because great measure will be given to me. I need to remember that there will be a last day, even though every day seems the same and I need to look to explosive and inexorable growth of this kingdom to remind me of God’s unstoppable power.

But lets talk about having ears to hear. Jesus repeats this in Mark 4:9 and again in 4:23 saying “let them hear”. And yet, he had also said in Mark 4:11-12 (quoting Isaiah 6):

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

Why speak in parables? Doesn’t Jesus want people to be able to immediately understand the gospel?

As Mark L. Strauss says in his commentary, the clauses and grammar in the Greek “makes this passage one of the most difficult in the NT, since Jesus appears to be saying that he teaches in parables in order to blind the eyes of the listeners.” (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Mark, 2014, p184). In exploring the many possible interpretations, Strauss settles on a negative function. In Isaiah chapters 5 and 6, God uses the unbelief of the Israelites to accomplish his judgement. Through an allegory of a vineyard, Isaiah relays God’s warning of pending judgement and describes that the prophesy will fall on deaf ears – because his judgement is set. In this way, says Strauss “He will use their rejection to accomplish his sovereign purpose.” just as he did with Moses’ Pharoah and others throughout scripture. So Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah specifically links what he is saying to a time when God was visiting judgement on his people.

What that means here is that on one hand, parables are easy to remember for those with ears to hear. For others, their hardened hearts are the very thing that God will use against them for their judgement. This is hard teaching. It shows us that Jesus’ arrival, while a sign that the new age has come, is also an instrument of judgement – those who will hear and believe, and those who will reject him. The wheat and the chaff. As Jesus is quoted in Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

BUT we don’t know who is chosen. We don’t know who is predestined. We don’t know what soil people are. We don’t know which road and which gate they will go through. So we can only be faithful and obedient. We follow Jesus. We grow in our discipleship. We remember what Jesus tells us about the kingdom – not what we want to know. Because the kingdom will be enormous, and provide us all with a place to rest and nest in the shade.

I feel comforted just hearing that.

The other stuff? That makes me feel queasy. The whole hardened hearts as an instrument of people’s judgement thing. But I think that sense of unease is a prompt to act. Because if we don’t know people’s destination, but we know it is one of two places, it gives us a sense of urgency in our interactions with others. It compels us, in obedience, and knowing there will be a harvest, to live authentically to our beliefs. This should show in our words and our behaviours as our hearts and minds are shaped by Jesus’ teaching. I find these passages hard. But they give me a boost to avoid being complacent as a Christian.

We cannot be sleepy in our faith.

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)

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.