Gospel of Mark — Week 7

Monday, November 19

Read: Mark 9:33-37

Consider: A couple of weeks ago we saw the disciples jockeying for position in Jesus’ new kingdom (Mark 10:35-45). James and his brother, John, went to Jesus on the sly to ask for the top spots. When the other ten disciples got wind of it, they were incensed. They couldn’t believe those two tried to step to the front of the line. Of course, in all of this, we see that none of them had a clue as to the true nature of Christ’s ways. If they did, they would have seen the absurdity of what they were doing and what they were asking.

This ordeal had been brewing among the disciples. We see why this came to a head in chapter ten when we read chapter nine and discover that the twelve “had argued about who was the greatest” (9:34).

Now, remember, when Jesus said “kingdom” (basileia in the original language), the disciples heard “empire,” as in the Roman Empire. The reason Christ’s new kingdom was so difficult for them to envision was that they had to unlearn the ways of empire they saw in Caesar and Herod. So, Jesus taught them about strength and power with the image of the most powerless thing they could imagine…

“He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me…’” (9:36-37)

He later reiterated that truth…

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (10:14-15)

Now, let’s be careful not to miss what Jesus was saying. He wasn’t simply talking about a future kingdom. He was talking about entering the kingdom that came to us in Christ. He was telling his disciples that the kingdom was present, it stood before them, it was right in front of their eyes—and, yet, it was possible to miss it, to not recognize it, to not even be aware of its existence. Caesar and Herod couldn’t see it, but the child he was holding in his arms could know it.

And we can, too. But we can’t see this kingdom through the lenses of the empires of this world. We need to unlearn, so that we can see. Thankfully, we’ll soon be entering that time of the year when a radical paradigm shift is possible.

Pray: “Lord, you told Nicodemus that unless he had a radical change of heart and mind he could not even “see the kingdom of God” that stood right in front of him (John 3:3). I ask you to open my eyes—my spiritual understanding—so that I might see you in new ways and understand your purpose more fully. I humbly ask this, knowing that it is a gift from you. It is not knowledge that I attain. I must simply be as open to you as that child you held in your arms.”

 

Tuesday, November 20

Read: Matthew 18:1-6

Consider: Today we read a parallel account in Matthew of what Jesus taught in Mark 9. We left off yesterday with Jesus holding a child in his arms, teaching his disciples about the true meaning of the kingdom of heaven. As he held that child, he brought up a very difficult topic. I’m sure there was a hush that came over his listeners as he talked about the atrocities that were taking place—evil that was crushing the lives of children.

The Roman Empire of the first century was not a safe place for kids. The poor ones were enslaved along with their parents and were treated as animals rather than human image-bearers of God. Many of the Caesars and powerful men of Rome used young boys as sex slaves. I can only imagine how Jesus’ countenance must have changed as he lifted his gaze from that beautiful child, looked the people square in the eye, and said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

No matter what the social ill is—war, the displacement of refugees, poverty, hunger, homelessness, human trafficking, pornography, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, lack of access to health care, rejection of the “other”—no one suffers more than the children.

Jesus instructed us to take care of the kids—and all of those who are most vulnerable. The Old Testament prophets told Israel that if they didn’t take care of the immigrants, the widows and the orphans, they shouldn’t have the nerve to call themselves God’s people.

Through our churches, our organizations, our families and our circles of influence, God calls those of us who have some power, some autonomy, some voice, to discern how we can be the voice for those who are oppressed.

It may be loving a young, pregnant women and helping her find the resources she needs for pre and post-natal care, while assuring her that her baby is a beautiful gift from God. It may be helping a child learn how to read. It may be standing up for a young person of color when she or he is bullied in the mall. It may be making sure that a child has a gift to open on Christmas Day. It may be inviting LGBTQ college students to your house, because they won’t be welcomed in their parents’ homes on Thanksgiving Day. And it certainly means loving—in word and in action—without judgement or condemnation.

If you read these devotional meditations on a consistent basis, you now that this topic comes up often in my writing. It is a big deal to me. That’s because I believe it’s a big deal to Jesus.

Pray: “Lord, I know that seldom do we accidentally help the oppressed. Usually we are empowered to do so because we’ve prayed, planned, and kept our hearts open. Please help me to have the heart of Christ. Guide me as to how I can be your hands, your voice and your embrace to those who so desperately need to know you care. I don’t have many answers, but I give you myself. Guide to where you want me to go.”

 

Wednesday, November 21

Read: Mark 10:17-31

Consider: This is an amazing encounter that Jesus turned into a teaching moment for his disciples—and for you and me. It’s difficult. How do we interpret this passage for our lives? After all, we can’t give up everything. How would we feed our kids? And, of course, we’re not rich…but…oh, yeah, I guess if we have food, clothing and housing, we’re some of the richest people on the planet. Okay, let’s just skip this passage.

Well, no we can’t skip it. And we don’t want to approach it from a defensive position, trying to justify ourselves. So, let’s just look for the one big point Jesus was trying to make, as best as we can discern that.

That nameless man was keeping the law to the best of his ability. But something was missing. Jesus asked him about the commandments, but after they checked a few off, one important command had not yet been raised—the most important one.

“Jesus looked at him and loved him” (10:21), so wanting the best for this man, Jesus brought up the first commandment, in which God said, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). But Jesus didn’t quote the command, he simply asked the man to give up his other gods. Unfortunately, the man had not yet come to the point in his life where he was willing to pursue only one God.

I think people often misinterpret Jesus’ heart in this encounter. Too many times we read this as though Jesus was putting a huge burden on that man. It’s as if we think Jesus was saying, “Go get your priorities in order and straighten out your life, then you can be my disciple.” But that’s exactly what Jesus wasn’t saying.

Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him — “Come, follow me” (10:21). “Discard the junk that’s holding you back. Then, as we walk together, I’ll teach you how to live. And in the process, you’ll find freedom and discover the life you seek.”

Jesus wasn’t laying a burden on the man, he was inviting him to lay down his burden.

Pray: “Lord, on this journey you have repeatedly helped me to lay aside the baggage that hinders my walk. Teach me to travel light. I want the journey to be defined by you, and not by the extraneous things that weigh me down. Thank you for your guidance and your patience with me.”

 

Thursday, November 22 — Happy Thanksgiving!

Read: Psalm 147:1-14

Consider: Let’s take a couple of days to step out of the Gospel of Mark to focus our minds and recalibrate our perspective by giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving is a national holiday that is filled with traditions. But it can become a deeply spiritual time as well. Most of us probably won’t have extended prayer and meditation time today, but we can still practice the presence of his Spirit with a heart of thanksgiving.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “count your blessings,” you probably recognized that as what the writer was doing in the great psalm we read today.

“The Lord builds up Jerusalem…heals the brokenhearted… sustains the humble…supplies the earth with rain…makes grass grow on the hills…provides food for the cattle…delights in those who honor him…grants peace to your borders…satisfies you with the finest of wheat…”

…and so much more.

One of the benefits of recounting our blessings is getting a glimpse of the big picture. Have you ever seen one of those pictures that is made up of hundreds of smaller snapshots? In many ways our lives are like that. God has given huge blessings to us. Sometimes we need to stand back and look at the big picture. And then, if we look closely, we will see that this big picture is the accumulation of blessings that we previously overlooked—the “small” blessings that we easily take for granted.

Praising God for the “small” blessings in life is not silly or trivial. It is a way of recognizing God’s work in our daily lives. It is a way of remembering that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).

As we express our gratitude to God today, we’ll discover his presence in our praise. We may even get a better perspective on the issues we face. And we’ll find ourselves agreeing with the psalmist when he said, “How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him!” (147:1).

Pray: Today may be a crazy day for you. You may be visiting family or hosting relatives in your home. It may be a difficult day to find time to be alone. Or perhaps you have to work today, and it does not feel like a holiday at all. Or maybe this is a tough day because you’re hurting, and praise does not come easily. Whatever your circumstances and wherever you are, try to get alone with God long enough to say, “Thank you for loving me.”

 

Friday, November 23

Read: Micah 5:2-4

Consider: It has arrived! The Christmas season is here! It’s time to shop, eat, celebrate and…

Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute! Stop! Back up the train!

It’s not Christmas time yet. Oh, culturally it may be, but on the Christian calendar there is something vitally important that precedes Christmas—a time that we dare not neglect or ignore. Christians will soon be entering the Season of Advent.

This year is different. Usually the First Sunday of Advent is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This year it doesn’t arrive until December 2. So, we’ll have time next week to get ready for Advent—that precious time of preparation.

But today is “Black Friday.” We’re told the name comes from the fact that retailers need the Christmas season to make a profit—to stay in the black. It is now followed by “Cyber Monday” when you can get some great deals online. So, we see the initial trajectory of the season in our culture.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not railing against gift-buying and gift-giving. (I’ll be doing plenty of that.) I’m not even slamming Black Friday. I have friends who have made this day a wonderful tradition of shopping for people they love with people they love. It’s not for me. I don’t like the crowds. But it can be fun and festive for people who have the proper perspective on giving and receiving.

And, of course, that’s the issue—perspective.

A lot of things will feel urgent over the next few weeks, but there is a big difference between what feels urgent and what is truly important. It will be tempting to fall into the many traps of unrealistic expectations—those of the culture, those of family and friends, and your own. Some things won’t get done. And that’s fine.

I know this can be a battle every year. And every year we hear the same clichés (“Keep Christ in Christmas”) that don’t really help us with our focus. We’ll have to choose. Intentionally, each one of us will need to decide what Advent and Christmas should be.

And in doing so, let’s not forget about those who hurt. This is a terribly difficult time for many people: those who have lost loved ones or are facing catastrophic illness, families that have suffered through a recent divorce, military families, people who feel isolated from the ones they love, parents who fear that they won’t have the resources for their children to have a Merry Christmas, and many others. And don’t forget the lonely and the elderly.

We’re going to celebrate the One who came to us. In that manger we see simplicity and power. Let’s find him incarnated in powerfully simple acts of love.

Pray: Ask the Lord to help you fix your gaze on the promise of “God with us” during this amazing time of the year. Pray that your walk with Christ will be enhanced as you grasp in your spirit the depth of his love. And ask God to use you for his purposes in a special way.

 

Saturday, November 24

Read: Psalm 100:1-5

Consider: We’ve spent seven weeks looking at Mark’s account of the good news of Jesus Christ. While we certainly couldn’t take in the whole narrative, we’ve looked at encounters, healings and teachings that have taken us to Mark 11, which begins to unfold the events leading to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But we’ll save that for spring, for the Lenten Season. We’ll step out of that narrative to observe Advent, Christmas and Christmastide.

But before that, let’s meditate a little longer on the joy that comes from gratitude. After all, it’s still Thanksgiving Weekend.

Gratitude doesn’t always come easy. Oh, it’s easy when the road is smooth. Right? Well, that’s a strange thing. Often, we express less gratitude during the good times, because we begin to take God’s blessings for granted. I’ve been astounded at the many times I’ve heard expressions of thanksgiving from people who were going through great stress and sorrow. I’ve also been amazed at my capacity to complain when God has given me so much.

So, if you find that you go too long without acknowledging God’s gifts, begin the habit of thanking God for the small things. From clean water, to full stomachs, to warm beds, every day we are showered with blessings. And, if we practice it, we find that gratitude changes our lives, because gratitude gives us a realistic perspective on life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that these small blessing are not only physical and material in nature, but they are spiritual as well.

“Only those who are thankful for small things also receive great things. We keep God from giving us the great spiritual gifts that he has for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we cannot be satisfied with the small amount of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love given to us and always look greedily for greater gifts (Jeremiah 45:5). We then complain that we lack the great certainty, the strong faith, and rich experience that God has given to other Christians, and we believe that our grievances are righteous. We pray for the great things and forget to give thanks for the daily small (yet in truth not small!) gifts. But how can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive small things from his hand?”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Pray: Form a habit of praising God for the “big” things in your time alone with him. Then throughout the day, recognize the many “small” blessings and give him thanks. Over time, you won’t even think about “big” and “small” gifts. You’ll simply find a spirit of gratitude permeating your life. And that is life-transforming.