Gospel of Mark — Week 3

Monday, October 22

Read: Mark 9:2-10

Consider: Last week we looked at a shocking moment when Jesus firmly rebuked Peter, telling him, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mark 8:33). Through this humbling and extraordinary experience Peter, along with James and John, began to get a new vision. In turn, we get a glimpse of this thing that Jesus called “the kingdom of heaven.”

The disciples were puzzled, confused and disturbed by Jesus’ teaching on his death and his call to them to follow him in death (8:31-35). They may have thought that this was some new teaching that departed from the Jewish faith they had followed their entire lives. They had been raised with the promise of a conquering Messiah—a powerful one who would come to liberate them from their oppressors.

But on the top of a mountain, they were given a new perspective of the First Covenant—the Old Testament—with the sight of Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. And perhaps they began to see what is now so clear to Jesus’ followers.

The meaning of this event, which we call “The Transfiguration,” is multi-layered. There is a depth to it that is worthy of our consideration over time. But one thing that it clearly shows is that Jesus’ kingdom is the fulfillment of what had been foretold for many centuries. Jesus—God in the flesh—has come to redeem creation. What one prominent theologian calls “The Great Cleanup Operation” has begun.

Consider the contrast between the humility of Jesus at his baptism and the exaltation of Jesus at his transfiguration. And then notice that at both times the Father utters the same words…

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (9:7)

The humble one born in a manger is the conqueror. But he will conquer in the way that he came, by humbly laying aside his power and laying down his life.

Jesus told them to keep this quiet until he had risen from the dead and Mark tells us that Peter, James and John were “discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant” (9:10). Didn’t they remember that Jesus had already explained that to them? Before they got to the mountain he told them that he would “be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). Maybe the disciples are exactly like us. It’s hard to believe in resurrection while we’re in the trenches, but it’s easier to see it from the mountain top.

Today, spend some extra time with Jesus. Perhaps from the top of that mountain you can get new assurance that death is followed by resurrection.

Pray: “Lord, just as Peter said, ‘it is good for us to be here’ (9:5), I thank you for being with me today. It is good to be with you, to be in your presence and to know that I am with the One ‘who was, and is, and is to come’ (Revelation 4:8). Today I want to see your majesty and your humility. Thank you for taking us to the mountain.”

 

Tuesday, October 23

Read: Mark 1:9-13

Consider: Yesterday we heard the announcement of the Father on the Mount of Transfiguration — “This is my Son, whom I love” (9:7). Now, let’s return to the first time we heard those words, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. Mark tells us that the heavens were “torn open,” the Spirit descended, and the Father said, “You are my Son, whom I love” (1:10-11).

What followed was a striking change of venue. Jesus would leave the waters of the Jordon and not yet rise to the mountain where he was transfigured. Instead, “the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness”—the desert (1:12).

As we walk this journey with Jesus, there will be times when he allows us to—perhaps even leads us to—enter the desert.

The desert is a metaphor for the dry, barren seasons of our lives. As Christ-followers, we have times of spiritual abundance, when we seem to be overflowing with blessings, joy and peace. But we also experience times of great struggle. In these desert experiences it is often difficult to see God or to sense his presence in our lives. Our prayers seem like mere words rather than connections with our Father. Our doubts creep in on us, making us wonder if our relationship with Christ is real. Even when we don’t doubt the reality of God, we’re tempted to doubt the reality of our place in his plans. And that’s the reality of the desert. Just as Jesus was, we’re tempted in the desert.

What are your greatest temptations when you are in the desert? Some common ones are…

The temptation to look for the “quick fix” to a problem, rather than allowing God to do his work in you.

The temptation to doubt yourself—to doubt that God has a purpose for you and that you have the ability to find that purpose.

The temptation to give up—whatever that may look like in your situation.

The temptation to run from the desert, rather than looking for God in the desert.

Mark tells us that Jesus was in the desert for forty days. “Forty days” is a biblical figure of speech. At times it may refer to a literal forty days, but it usually is a way of simply saying “a very long time.” When we’re in the desert, it feels like a very long time. And sometimes we come to feel as though it is our permanent dwelling place. It feels like we’ll never leave the dry, barren, frightening landscape of our lives. But the desert is not our permanent home and we are not left alone. The desert is part of our path on this journey, and sometimes, we must wander through it.

Pray: “Lord, when I cannot see your face or discern your ways, help me to trust your heart. While your presence eludes me on an emotional level, help my faith to sustain me in knowing that you are always with me. Even though I may not see you now, thank you for walking with me through the desert.”

 

Wednesday, October 24

Read: 1 Kings 19:1-12

Consider: Elijah made a statement that makes us smile. We don’t smile because it is funny. It’s a note of despair. We smile because we have all felt the way Elijah did when he said, “I have had enough, Lord” (19:4). In the Judean desert Elijah “prayed that he might die” (19:4). What is amazing about Elijah’s desert experience is that it came on the heels of his greatest victories. Read the eighteenth chapter of 1 Kings and there you find a powerful man being used by God in the performance of two tremendous miracles. Elijah was literally on top of the mountain seeing God’s work in a way that few people ever have or ever will.

It doesn’t take long to go from the mountain to the desert. As we saw yesterday, Jesus’ baptism, accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the proclamation of who he was, immediately preceded his desert experience and his temptations.

Perhaps that is why the desert feels so barren. When we have experienced the joy and fullness of life, we can feel so empty when it seems to be absent. But that is the point. It feels barren. It feels empty. But we cannot rely on our emotions. We must rely on our faith in the one who said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Sometimes the desert forces us and teaches us to listen for God in ways we never had before. Again, we look to Elijah’s experience.

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Pray: Ask the Lord to use your desert experience to teach you. And even though what you are learning will take a lifetime to grasp, ask him to empower you to listen. Amidst the noise, chaos and fear of life, offer him a teachable spirit so that you can begin to hear the gentle whisper.

 

Thursday, October 25

Read: Psalm 63:1-8

Consider: Psalm 63 is preceded by a note indicating that this psalm was written by David when he was in the desert of Judah. This desert psalm, however, does not have the angst that we heard yesterday from Elijah when he was in the desert. In fact, it sounds like a song of praise.

“O God, you are my God…” (63:1)

“Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” (63:3-4)

“My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (63:5)

None of the “I have had enough, Lord, take my life” (1 Kings 19:4) that came from the mouth of Elijah. What gives?

There are two different concepts of the desert that impact our Christian lives. We have spent a couple of days speaking about the barren, parched experience, when God feels far off and we are struggling to survive the spiritual desert. But the desert is also seen as a place to escape to in order to hear God’s voice. Christian history teaches us about the “Desert Fathers and Mothers”—contemplatives who intentionally spent a great amount of time in the desert, away from life’s distractions, so that they could hear God’s voice.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the desert, going through an arid and frightful place in our spiritual journeys. Other times, we flee to the desert to focus our lives and listen to God. Sometimes we experience both at the same time. We find ourselves in a desert we didn’t choose, but we embrace the experience to learn what God is teaching us. And if it is too dark and scary to embrace, we simply look for God in the desert.

And in that dry, barren, frightful place—even when we have no ability to feel—we say, “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live” (63:3-4).

Pray: “Lord, even if I can’t praise you for the desert, I will trust you while I’m in the desert. Thank you that while I walk through a dreadful part of my journey, it will be a place where I meet you and know you in a deeper way. I choose to retain the hope of David’s prayer that ‘My soul will be satisfied.’

 

Friday, October 26

Read: Mark 2:18-22

Consider: As I teach and consult with pastors and church leaders, I always remind them that the content of our message is more important than the vehicle we use. I’ve worshiped in liturgical churches, new concept churches, traditional churches, Protestant churches and Catholic churches. I’ve baptized people in lakes, ponds, rivers, baptistries, swimming pools and hospital beds. And the good news of Jesus Christ never changed. In every one of those settings, Christ was present, working on us, in us and through us.

So, why did Jesus say that new wine must be poured into new wineskins? Why does the container matter?

Have you noticed that truth can only be accepted where it is welcomed? We live in a polarized nation that is deeply divided by political ideology, race, religion, gender issues and ethical standards. And what is deeply distressing is the increasing realization that we live in what many are calling a “post-truth” culture. In other words, one of the reasons we can’t have logical discussions about important issues is that both sides are working from a different set of “facts.” We can’t even agree upon what to disagree upon. Fox News and MSNBC are giving two different narratives, so we usually just choose the one we like best—the one that confirms our existing biases.

Now, here’s the danger. It’s easy for me to read that last paragraph and immediately jump to, “Yeah! If those people could only see the truth!” Of course, that sentiment is based on the assumption that I have the true perspective and if people could just see God, the world and what is right the way I see them, we’d be in good shape. After all, I’m a Christian!

Such is my arrogance. Such is your arrogance.

So, the new wineskin isn’t Fox News, nor is it MSNBC. The new wineskin is the kingdom of heaven that has come to earth in Jesus of Nazareth. And, believe me, we can’t fit it into red or blue, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. And when we try to do that…well, Jesus told us what the result would be. As the new wine ferments, it expands. And the old, tired, stretched out wineskins can’t hold it. They burst. No, the new wine must be poured into something else.

I’ve tried to teach this for decades, and yet I’ve been more disillusioned over the past couple years than in my entire life. Christians are taking the values of this culture and playing by its rules. They’re wielding the weapons Jesus told us to reject, and in doing so, are rejecting the way of Christ. What will happen? Jesus said those skins will burst. When that happens, the world won’t see Jesus. They’ll simply see those who used his name.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, I implore you…no, I beg you, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world”—or as J.B. Phillips translated it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold” (Romans 12:2).

If we take American values, conservative values or liberal values and say they are the values of Jesus, we’ve simply taken his name in vain.

Pray: “Lord, I repent. Forgive me for the times I’ve worshipped my nation, my party and my opinions more than I’ve worshipped you. Forgive me for basing my ethics on something other than your Sermon on the Mount. Open my eyes. Make me a new wineskin so that the new wine of the new kingdom can be carried in me. Thank you for your patience and forgiveness.”

 

Saturday, October 27

Read: Mark 2:23–3:6

Consider: Have you ever noticed how sometimes we can get it exactly wrong—like 180 degrees wrong? I’m not talking about us generally as a human race. I’m talking about religious people, even Christians. History has seen religious people who were arrogant, hateful power mongers. We’ve seen Christians who lusted for control and oppressed the weak. We’ve seen segments of Christianity that are so mutated we can’t imagine how they could possibly use Christ’s name. (The Ku Klux Klan is an example).

How does this happen?

Part of our nature is our desire to be in control. So, when we’re raising children, teaching teenagers or leading a church, we tend to emphasize the rules. We do it with good motives. We’re trying to protect children, teenagers and young believers. We’re trying to place them on and keep them on the right path. It’s a noble purpose.

But, it’s easy to cross a line by which we begin to define our faith by what we do or what we don’t do, rather than by who we are and whose we are. That’s why Jesus constantly clashed with the Pharisees.

Today’s reading takes us to the debates over the Jewish Sabbath laws. It appeared that Jesus simply ignored them. Of course, to the Pharisees, this not only made Jesus wrong, it made him dangerous. So, they tried to debate him and publicly expose him as a fraud. And, in today’s passage, we see what happened repeatedly throughout the gospels. When they couldn’t draw people away from him, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (3:6).

Really? Over Sabbath laws? How can people get it so wrong that they want to murder in the name of God?

Jesus told them just how wrong—180 degrees turned around—they had become when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27). And he was exasperated and disgusted with the Pharisees when they thought the rules should take priority over Jesus healing a man with a life-altering disability.

You weren’t made for rules and guidelines. They were made for you. You were made for love. You were created in God’s image to love and be loved. Because you are God’s image bearer and God is love, you are defined by love. Don’t define yourself or anyone else as anything less.

By the way, Jesus really didn’t ignore the Sabbath laws. He simply understood their intent—what Paul would later call the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Jesus knew that the Sabbath invitation to rest was borne out of God’s love for you. How could we see it any other way, for God is love?

Pray: “Lord, every time you forgive you are stating that people are more important than laws. That amazes me. You amaze me, Jesus. Make me more like you. I’ll never find the purity of our faith in regulations. Help me to find it in love.”