Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Christ: The King of the Long Ending

Preached at the main service on Easter, April 24, 2011

Scripture readings:
Exodus 15:1-18; Mark 16:9-20

If you read with me in a Bible of your own, you may have noticed that these verses in Mark are often separated from the first part of the chapter. They are set in brackets, or printed in italics, or put in a smaller print, or something.

There is an historical reason for this. The earliest, most ancient copies of Mark don’t contain verses nine through twenty. Mark just seemed to stop with the story of the women running in fear from the empty tomb (in verse 8).

What we have in these verses probably comes from an ancient church that wanted to make Mark feel complete. They felt called by God to humbly add a brief list of what the other gospels and the Book of Acts said followed the resurrection of Jesus.

The meeting of Mary Magdalene with Jesus summarizes a story in the Gospel of John. The meeting of two disciples with Jesus in the country summarizes the story of the road to Emmaus told in the Gospel of Luke. The list of things added by that ancient church also tells us some things that no one else tells us.

The only problem is that these verses historically don’t come from Mark. They come from a time when most churches had a Gospel of Mark that ended with the women running away from the empty tomb full of fear.

The church historian Eusebius, who was born in the year 240 AD, and the Bible translator Jerome, who was born in 340 AD, both wrote to say that most copies of Mark ended with verse eight. They knew about the verses from the longer ending. Jerome included them in the Latin translation he was making at the request of the Bishop of Rome. Eusebius may have helped get these verses into the new edition of Greek Bibles that was being prepared in the effort to make the Bible more available in the Greek part of the empire. In their time, the empire was turning Christian, and projects like these could be safely carried out.

And so these verses are an awkward historical gift to us. They existed, but most Christians knew nothing about them and, then; there they were.

The presence of these verses is really a beautiful thing. It goes straight along with whole purpose of the resurrection. Because, here is an apparent flaw; almost like a fatal wound: the loss of the ending of a gospel and the substitution of other verses. And yet the Bible is full of examples of God taking the mishaps of his people, and even their sins, and doing something magnificent through them, and in spite of them.

This seeming imperfection in the Bible requires us (if we are willing) to treat the Bible exactly as if it were just as much a work of grace and mercy as any other story in the Bible. The kind of divine authority by which God, in Christ, makes us his true children is the kind of divine authority by which God makes the Bible his true and living word. It is in line with the way the God of the Bible works all along. Accepting the Bible just as it is goes along with accepting the God of the Bible just as he is.

It is the nature of God to take apparent flaws, and seeming imperfections, as the very path he chooses to make his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

God can take a book like ours and make it his holy word to us and to others. God can take you (with all your apparent flaws and seeming imperfections) and make you his holy people. Do you realize that these are both miracles and this is typical what the God of the Bible does? Seeing the unity of what God does calls for an Easter faith.

God’s word is truly human and truly divine. We ignore it at our peril. We are truly and painfully human, and we are truly sons and daughters of God, and we ignore each other at our peril. And we know that, as fumbling as we are, other people need to listen to us.

This is not a matter of conceit and self-righteousness. It is love that tells us this. It is our heart that tells us this, when we seek to love others as God, in Christ, loves us.

Jesus does a daring thing. Jesus sends us: “Go into all the world, and preach the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15) What could be more dangerous? What could be more foolish, than for Jesus to make us the visible, vocal, physical agents of his work? If Christ is depending on us, isn’t he in big trouble?

This is why we have to be people of the resurrection. The Lord says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) This is what the Lord promised Paul; when Paul saw nothing in himself but weakness and failure. And this is how God works.

Sometimes the message of Jesus seems to have nothing to do with what people around us are looking for. No matter how well we phrase the Lords’ message, no matter how well we live it out, our message (the message of Jesus Christ and the whole Bible) can seem completely ridiculous to the world we live in.

Paul felt this way too. He wrote about the state of mind of the world of his time, and how ridiculous his message seemed to that world. “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (the nations), but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (2 Corinthians 1:22-25)

So a Book like ours, a message like ours, a church like ours, and messengers and workers like you and me are not unfit to be sent by Jesus to all the creation. We are the very type of raw material the Lord uses.

But we must live in Christ, who died for us and rose from the dead for us. This is the Lord’s power in our weakness. When we experience this, we get a foretaste of the resurrection.

The fact that the Lord was taken up into heaven does not mean that we are on our own. Jesus wasn’t taken up in order to be far from us. Jesus was taken up in order to be closer to us; closer than if he stood, in flesh and blood, by our side. Eugene Peterson translates it this way in “The Message”: “The disciples went everywhere preaching, the Master working right with them, validating the Message with indisputable evidence.” (Mark 16:20)

In Matthew Jesus told the disciples how they would go with his authority. In Luke Jesus told them how they must go with his power. Mark simply tells us how the disciples found Jesus working with them: “And the Lord worked with them.”

The writers of the long ending of Mark got the rest of Mark right about the difficult struggle of faith. The Gospel of Mark (as a whole) is full of this. It was so hard for them to believe. As Christians we slip fast out of our resurrection faith.

The disciples had the hardest time giving up their conviction that the cross and the resurrection could not fit together. You could not have a resurrection of Jesus in a world where you had the crucifixion of Jesus. This was a contradiction.

And it was a practical matter. It was a matter of solid experience. They lived in a world where the people who stood up got crucified, and that was the end of it. What changed them?

In the end they were not changed by having the answers given to them in a more convincing and reasonable way. They were not changed by creating a new spirituality or a philosophy of life that was able to handle what happened to Jesus. It was a matter of finally meeting Jesus in his resurrected self.

When we meet the resurrected Jesus we know something has changed. Our world has changed, and we have changed, and we know that Jesus lives.

Except that we struggle with faith. This is a fact written into the Gospel and that is the best thing that could ever happen to us. We think that we have to approach the world, and the people around us, as if we were people who have somehow arrived and have gotten our faith all put together, with all the answers.

It’s true that Jesus makes faith the essential requirement for being rescued by him. But this is not a matter of having all the answers. This is like the story we would tell of the time when a life guard saved our life. A life guard has no way of helping a drowning swimmer unless the swimmer trusts him. Salvation is like that.

Salvation is not given because you agree to the validity of a series of abstract propositions about Jesus and you. The old jargon that Christians often use to describe the good news has become a strange and abstract proposition.

Salvation is a matter of our deepest need and God’s arm reaching out to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The truth is that we all need to die and rise; and only the God who has come into our world in Christ has done the work to make that possible.

That is what we trust. That is what faith is about. We can share this because the power of the resurrection will give us new words to speak to people’s hearts.

Well we do not come to the world as people who have arrived in the matter of faith. We need faith and trust. But we come to the world as people who should be able to understand unbelief from the inside and so know how to speak to it. We know the obstacles. We know the difficulties. We know the faithfulness of the Lord in spite of our unworthiness, and this is part and parcel of being people of the resurrection.

The resurrection is a part of history, but it is also part of the kingdom of God, which is a power beyond time and space. So even if we knew the resurrection for ourselves, once upon a time, that is not enough. Our relationship with Jesus is rooted in everlasting life, and nothing there is never finished and done with.

The prophet Jeremiah was right when he described the grace of God like this. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

The grace of God is not real unless it is continually new, like a living thing. The resurrection of Jesus (as we must experience it) is a continually new and living thing.

Now we come to a funny part of the long ending of the Gospel of Mark. Where it says: “They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18) Jesus never commanded us to be snake handlers or poison drinkers. Jesus was merely predicting the kinds of experiences his people would have in the future.

What does the gospel mean about picking up snakes and not getting hurt? This is the summary of a story in the Book of Acts.

It happened to Paul, when he was building a bonfire on the beach of an island, where he and a whole crowd of people had been shipwrecked. Paul was carrying an armload of brush for the fire. A snake was hiding in the brush in his arms. The snake bit Paul. He held out his hand and there the snake was; dangling from his hand. Paul shook the snake off, into the fire, and was not hurt. (Acts 28:1-6)

You can read about this in Acts chapter twenty-eight. It is a very funny story.

There is a story that never got into the Bible. It crops up more than once and it tells about an enemy trying to murder a Christian by putting poison in his drink; but just as the Christian went to drink from his cup, the cup shattered in his hand.

Jesus does not promise us that we will be saved from every danger, or from every loss, or from every illness. Paul’s helper Timothy suffered from many illnesses, and he was never miraculously cured.

Risk, and loss, and danger, and illness, and death are the powers of the world that we know very well. They happen all around us. They happen to us; but they do not have the final word. The power of God has the final word and we meet that power, which is planted in us by Jesus, through his resurrection. We have a spiritual source of life (living in us) that contradicts the rules and the wisdom of this world.

The world says, “Don’t bother.” It tells us to not try this, and not pray for that. It tells us that what our faith tells us to do, and what the pattern of Jesus’ life tells us to do, is not smart. It does not make sense. It is a waste of time. It will get us in trouble.

The Lord Jesus sent his disciples out to the whole creation with the promise that he would help us, and would work with us, and that the signs of his presence and his help would be with us all the time. If we keep steady, holding onto the faith that comes through Jesus, we will experience, through the course of our life, the resurrection power of God that will contradict what the world says is possible.

The resurrection of Jesus calls us to go forth and be living, breathing, speaking, acting contradictions to this world. This is an action that can never work as an act. Only the resurrection of Jesus, working in us, can make us able to contradict our world and proclaim Jesus to the whole creation.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Christ: The King of Fears

Preached early Easter morning, April 24, 2011

Scripture readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8

For many, the Gospel of Mark ends with fear. It says these words: “Trembling and bewildered the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (16:8)

Almost none of the early Christian writers of the second or third centuries quote from the verses that follow. The oldest manuscripts of the Bible don’t have any verses after verse eight, where the women flee in fear.

The church historian Eusebius, who was born in the year 240 AD and the Bible translator Jerome who was born in 340 AD both write to say that most copies of Mark ended with the verse about these women’s fears. Although Jerome added verses 9-20 to his Latin translation, this story of fear was the final story of Mark as most ancient Christians knew it.

Fearful, fearful women: but how could they be afraid? Jesus was no longer in the tomb.

The body was gone, and an angel had met them at the tomb, and told them: Jesus was alive. He had risen! Jesus was at large. He was going to meet them. How could they ever be afraid again, when such a thing could happen?

Now fear is a primal response; a primal emotion. It’s part of our God-given survival mechanism.

There are other such mechanisms. I would suggest that tears are also a kind of primal response.

Comparing fears and tears can help us understand what these followers of Jesus were going through. Just as there can be tears of joy, I believe there can also be fears of joy. The fleeing of the women from the tomb can be explained by the power of their fears of joy.

Imagine being a parent and your child comes home, and very awkwardly relates some dangerous and horrific thing that has just happened to them. They are OK! You can see they are OK. But you feel all the fear you would have felt had you been there. And you feel all the joy your heart can hold from seeing them safe. At such a time you may have both fears and tears of joy.

And then, because this has happened, you have this new sense of urgency. It’s almost another kind of fear. You have got to do something. You have to cry. You have to hug. You have to laugh. You have to do something to set your child at ease. Maybe give them a bowl of ice cream. Have them take a nap. Take them somewhere fun. You could feel driven to do all these things, whether they are five or twenty-five, because of your fears of joy.

We are wise to not go around thinking about all the horrible things that could possibly happen. But, when horrible things do happen, because we have not spent most of our lives constantly worrying about them, such things do change our world. Once these things happen, they change the meaning of the world we live in.

It is true that we can grow in such a world. We can understand more about the infinite value of love and relationships. We can understand more about the value of quietness and courage. We can understand more about the importance of living in the moment; and enjoying the moment, and life’s simple things. That is a positive result of having your world change around you.

But the followers of Jesus had fears of joy because their whole world had changed in a totally different direction. It was all because of Easter. It was because of the resurrection. We need to change, along with those disciples, in order to be the people of Easter.

The followers of Jesus had long known that they lived in a world of crosses. All over the Roman world people hung on crosses, and their world was ruled by empires, and high taxes, and military occupations. It was ruled by an order based on pride and brutality. It was a world that hung people on crosses to die, to maintain peace and order.

They had adjusted to this. They knew how to live in such a world. But, when Jesus was arrested, and condemned, and whipped, and crucified, they hit the wall in their world. They had met the world at its worst and it had changed them.

Jesus had met the world at its worst, and it had killed him. But, now, Jesus was alive! Jesus rose from the dead. He got up, and he got out of that tomb, and he was out there in the world; waiting to meet his people and share his work with them.

This is the resurrection of Jesus. This is Easter. This is the world to which the gospel calls us.

Death had seemed to cancel out Jesus, as someone with something of lasting value to say. The resurrection contradicts death, and this is the proof that Jesus has the right to say everything that he has ever said. and say it directly to us.

THEIR world was covered with crosses. Their world seemed to be ruled by those crosses. Now, they found themselves living in a new world that was ruled by the resurrection of Jesus. Since Jesus rose from the dead, all good things, all fond hopes, are possible.

The resurrection is the proof that Jesus really could die for your sins, and for your forgiveness, and for your new life, and for your everlasting life. The resurrection is the proof that Jesus can say anything he wants to you. He can give you any calling in life. He can give you any task; any direction. He can lead you through any change. And he can tell you to not be afraid of it.

Since most early Christians had a blank at the end of Mark, after the fear of the women running from the tomb, the question in Mark was: What will happen next? What will those people do, and how will they do it?

The short ending of Mark is God speaking to you and me, and asking us: What will we do next, since we live in a world where the resurrection has the final word?

What will we do and how will we live? Will we continue to be afraid? Will we continue to tremble and be confused? Will we continue to be silent?

What will you do next? Whatever you do; do not be afraid!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ: The King of the Forsaken

Preached Good Friday, April 22, 2011

Scripture Readings:
Psalm 22:1-31; Mark 15:33-39

“My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) These words begin a Psalm that most Jews (like Jesus) knew by heart; and it ends with the confidence that comes from knowing that you have not been forsaken. Jesus was not forsaken by God, but we can depend on him feeling the words as he said them. Jesus was in exactly the right place to do this.

Everything was going as planned. And the plan was for Jesus to endure terrible, unspeakable, painful, and devastating things. We can count on these words expressing the depth of his heart, because Jesus was entering the human condition more deeply than ever.

Human beings experience suffering, loneliness, injustice, and pain. Humans experience a Grand Canyon of distance that our thoughts, and words, and actions put between us and the members of our family, and neighbors, and friends, and enemies. Humans experience a Grand Canyon of distance that the very stuff we seem to be made of puts between us and God. We don’t see God, though God sees us. We are angry and afraid, though we are loved. We cannot understand, though we are understood.

We live in a world of people who are always going too far, and who never go far enough. And so we live in a world of pain, and distrust, and conflict, and injustice, and fear, and blame. This is the ultimate forsakenness. This is the world of sin.

As a human being, Jesus had shared this world with us as one who acted among us, and as one who spoke to us and worked with us; but he had never internalized our world. Jesus was truly tempted and tested by our world; but our world, as it is. His experience was a perfect part of him but never so as to change him. He was in our world, but not of it.

On the cross things changed. Jesus remained himself, but he put our world and our life upon himself. He drew our world into himself as he had never done before, as the price he paid to give us a new life.

Jesus is God entering our world as a human, in our own flesh and blood, with a human heart and mind. The word incarnate means this. Jesus is God incarnate.

The world of the cross of Jesus is almost another kind of incarnation. It is our world of sin made flesh and fastened to Jesus. Hatred, pride, fear, hypocrisy, injustice, and abuse took physical form upon Jesus in the nails, and the thorns, and every lash of the metal tipped scourge that tore his skin, and gouged his flesh, and made him into one living, breathing, gaping, bleeding wound.

Paul writes about this in 2 Corinthians 5: 21. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Isaiah the prophet pictures this, “Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness – so will he sprinkle many nations.” (Isaiah 52:14-15)

Most of the time, we fake it. We do not live our daily life as if our life and the world we live in had had its picture taken. But the true picture of our lives, and our world, is the sin laid upon Jesus on the cross. The true picture of us and our world is in the words of Jesus, and the words of the psalm: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”

There are some lines from a play (“Our Town”) by Thornton Wilder. A young woman, named Emily, dies in child-birth and is told (within the play) that, if she wants, she can go back to any time in her life and watch. She tries to do this, but she sees how casually even her own loving family lived.

She says: “I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” Even at its best, something is lost, and everything carries some flavor of forsakenness.

Emily also says this: “O, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” Even that is a kind of forsakenness.

On the cross, Jesus came to our side in our forsakenness, and our world’s sufferings, and our world’s disappointments just as surely as he came to carry our sins. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward [hopelessness] and resignation. That is why it is good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and that finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart. (Bonhoeffer to the Leibholz family, Zurich, May 21, 1942)

In his saving work for us, Jesus became the king of the forsaken. He carried our lostness on the cross.

On the cross, Jesus takes everything that alienates us from God, and from others, and from our true, God-designed self. Jesus takes our sins and our sufferings, and embodies them for us. Jesus becomes the scapegoat and offers himself in our place. He becomes the substitute who is also our friend who lays down his life for his friends.

At the Lord’s Table, Jesus, our friend, is our host. He knows the forsakenness of our sins and sufferings, for he has borne them for us on the cross. And he promises that there is a power in his sacrifice, and death, and resurrection to give us a new life and set us free. We will have life and freedom as we receive him and as we are nourished by his love.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Christ: The King of Happiness

Preached on April 17, Palm Sunday

Scripture readings:
Psalm 118:8-29; Mark 11:1-11

I know nothing of the Holy Land, or of Jerusalem, except for what I have seen in pictures, and maps, and histories. The first century Jewish historian, known by his Roman name as Flavius Josephus, and others of that century have given us detailed descriptions of Jerusalem and its surroundings.

I haven’t read those lately, but I will share with you a bit of the picture I have in my mind. What goes into the picture of Jerusalem on the day when Jesus entered the city for the great Jewish liberation feast of the Passover?

Imagine the coulee in which our towns are built. The Kidron Valley, on the east side (the Temple side) of Jerusalem, is a long, narrow steep-sided valley like ours.

On the east side of the Kidron, the slopes of the Mount of Olives rose several hundred feet. The Mount was blanketed by miles of silvery-grey leaves of the olive groves. Dark lines of date palm trees marched beside the narrow stone roads that ran up and down the slopes. White clusters of stone villages huddled among these trees and orchards.

The west side of the valley (the city side) also rose hundreds of feet above the valley bottom. It was not quite so high as the Mount of Olives (which overlooked it); but the city side of the Kidron rose like a cliff. It was a man made cliff. This was the eastern wall of Jerusalem, and the platform and walls of the Temple.

These were built by Herod the Great and his family. They ruled by fear, and they lived in fear of their own people. So they were master-designers of protective walls and fortresses. At the west side of the valley the ground rose upward toward the wall. The road became a series of steps that led up to the Fountain Gate. Then the wall soared above the slope; but the Temple Mount took its part of those walls far higher.

It was a two hundred foot straight drop from the roof of the Royal Portico to the ground at the base of the wall. Josephus reported how standing on the cornice of the roof and looking down made him dizzy and sick to his stomach.

The stone work of the wall was smoothly cut and tightly set; pale gray and creamy white limestone. The buildings above the Temple platform were pure white marble, like snow, rising stories above that.

Jerusalem stood like a mountain of polished stone. There was nothing like it in the world, though it stood for less than a hundred years before the Roman army destroyed it.

Jerusalem was growing and overflowing its walls. It had a population of between eighty thousand and a hundred thousand. Flavius Josephus gives evidence for a normal attendance of at least three million visitors, from all over the world, for the Passover. Everyone wanted to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem, but not everyone could fit, so the city limits were temporarily expanded every year, just for the feast, so that it included the tent cities pitched around the Holy City. The groves upon the Mount of Olives served as a camp ground for almost a million people.

The villages and towns of Galilee stuck together on the road with Jesus. They streamed together over the summit of the Mount of Olives. They paused on the summit and shivered with awe at the sight of the holy mountain of polished stone, shining in the sun. They prayed for the good of Jerusalem, and they all began the Passover songs.

We have the words of one of the songs they sang, and we have just read them. Psalm 118 was one of those songs the crowd sang when Jesus passed by.

The words were written hundreds of years before his coming, but they fit him like a glove. “I will not die, but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” (Psalm 118:17) “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118:22-23) “With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession.” (118:27)

The people sang this song for Jesus. They broke boughs or fronds from the rows of date-palms along the road.

One did not wave these branches for just anyone. This was not an act of celebrity worship. This was the custom for greeting a king. This was royal protocol.

They were welcoming Jesus as their king. They expected him to be a warrior like David. They expected him to defeat their enemies (the Romans) and perhaps rule over the Romans or receive tribute payments from them.

The end of the occupation, the end of their brutal taxation, the end of their humiliation was at hand. Jesus would lead their army. And he would draw to that army the power of the Lord of hosts, the Lord of the angel armies.

Those who welcomed Jesus threw their cloaks on the road. These were not dirt roads. These were the entrance roads to a city that was both holy and royal. They were stone roads and regularly cleaned. Still, donkeys and horses were ridden and driven on those roads every day, and there would be stink on that road, and that stink would stick to their cloaks and stain them.

A person’s cloak was their most expensive piece of clothing. Cloaks were made from strong, heavy woolen thread woven to last most of a lifetime. How white it was bleached, and how white it was kept, and the color of the stripe, and the size of the tassels at the corners showed your station in life. It was insulation from the cold of the desert high country, in the winter, and it was insulation from the desert heat in summer.

A cloak was collateral for the poor when they were in need of a loan. The lender would keep their cloak during the day. But they had to return it at night, because it was against the law for a lender to deprive the poor of the only blanket for their beds.

Most of those who lay their cloaks on the road were poor, for most of the people were poor. They lay their greatest treasure at Jesus’ feet (or at the feet of his borrowed donkey); because he was the king.

They were prepared to give him everything; to lay down their lives for him in battle. They were sure that battle would come. And they were glad for it! “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10)

Even the twelve disciples (the ones who were closest to Jesus, and knew his mind better than anyone else) had trouble on this point. Even they wanted Jesus to be a king like the Old Testament King David. But Jesus seemed not to care about what they wanted. Jesus seemed to be planning something that was just plain crazy. Jesus had been telling them that he was not coming to rule at the head of an army; but to be condemned, and crucified, and killed, and then to rise from the dead.

They could understand the dying part of the plan. They feared Jesus dying. It was sure to happen if he did not listen to them, and take up arms in time.

About his rising, they had no idea what that could mean. It did not fit what they had been taught about the Messiah or about the resurrection. They preferred not to think about this. But their avoidance did not protect them from fear.

This is part of the picture I hold in my head of that day. This is what I think was there to see and hear. And this is part of my picture of the inside of things. This is how I see the thoughts and feelings of those who followed Jesus, and those who welcomed him.

The story of Palm Sunday has a lot to teach us about following and welcoming Jesus. The way all those people were reaching out to Jesus teaches us.

When they laid their cloaks on the road, they were sacrificing something precious. Cloaks were expensive, and they were possessions of lasting value. You didn’t want to lose a cloak, or damage it. By giving Jesus their cloak they offered him their lives.

The person who has not met Jesus cannot understand this. But, when you do meet Jesus (when Jesus shows himself to you, and you see him as he is; when you see what he has done for you, and what he promises you)…when you see all this, you want to give him your life. This is a way of describing the nature of the Christian life: you receive Christ and you give your life to Christ.

The truth is that these things blend into each other so completely that you can’t separate them: giving and receiving, receiving and giving, giving and receiving. You can’t keep track of it.

Well, through the grace of God, you belong to Christ. Your life belongs to Jesus and he belongs to you.

The funny thing about connecting this gift with what the people gave, when they lay their cloaks at Jesus’ feet, is that (even though you have given your life to Jesus) it turns out that there seem to be a lot of things more precious to you than your life. You find that you want to hold other things back, even though your life is a gift to him. Isn’t that funny?

I mean, we will give him our life, but not give him our plans. We will give him our life, but we won’t give him our self-control. We will give him our life, but not our ambitions, or our loves, or our time, or our service to his world and to our neighbors. We will give him our life, but not our way of behaving in our family, or with our friends, or with our enemies. Isn’t it funny, that in our relationship with the Lord (giving him our life) there are things that must be more precious to us than our life, because we don’t give them to him?

And yet Jesus is our life. There is no life outside of him.

Another thing we have in common with those who followed Jesus, and with those who welcomed him, is that we often don’t understand what kind of king Jesus is. He is a savior-king, but we don’t understand what that means. Hosanna means “save us now”. The crowd wanted Jesus to save them from the world out there, not from the world within.

In his vision of heaven, in the Book of Revelation, the disciple John sees Jesus as “a lamb looking as if it had been slain, standing in the midst of the throne.” (Revelation 4:6) The sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross are part of his kingship on the throne of all time and space.

The crowd wanted Jesus to be a hero-King like David, by defeating their enemies “out there”. They wanted Jesus to wage war on the Romans and crush them.

We want a similar thing: not with an enemy state or power, but we want Jesus to fight the world outside us. We want Jesus fighting for us more than we want him fighting within us.

It was the nature of God to come in Christ to be one of us for the purpose of being a substitute for us. He came for the sake of being our stand-in.

In Jesus, God became us; living the life we could not live, dying under the weight of sins that would have, otherwise, been the death of us, rising to give us life through his victory.

In Christ, we die to sin and rise to life. The Apostle Paul says (in Romans 6:8), “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

We have trouble, just as the first disciples did, with believing that we need a king who will die for us. We mostly ignore what the good news tells us about how radical our need is.

Our need goes much deeper than we care to admit. Our enemies are not on the outside, but in our heart, and mind. Our enemies are ingrained much deeper than our deepest habits.

The news of this world tells us the same message that we ought to be able to see when we look in the mirror. The meaning of “sin” is that the human race is not merely broken and in need of repair, but that it has gone wrong in heart, and mind, and in its very nature. It needs to be saved by dying and rising. And that is what happens to us with Jesus.

This is serious stuff. But it is the seriousness that leads to the happiness of God.

The essence of what happened on Palm Sunday was that Jesus staged a parade. It was fun; really fun. There was singing, and dancing, and waving palm branches, and laughing; at least for those who liked Jesus.

Jesus designed it this way. Jesus wanted his path to the cross to include joy, because the cross is about grace, and grace means a beautiful gift freely given. Grace is about joy. The two words share the same linguistic root.

There is nothing more joyful (and there is nothing more joyfully motivating) than grace. The road to the cross is the road to grace and joy. The Letter to the Hebrews (12:2) says this. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross….”

If part of our life seems like a cross; even if our whole life seems like a cross; when we belong to Jesus, then our cross is his. His cross is ours. This means we can find joy even there. Even on the cross Jesus was not without joy.

I knew someone who, if you were to listen to her, had had everything possible go wrong with her life. Her childhood had been horrible. Her marriage had been horrible. The way her children had turned out was horrible. She would talk about this in detail, as if she wanted to bare the unhappiness that filled her soul.

Alongside this great unhappiness was an odd fact. I knew that this person had way too many dogs and cats; beyond anything that someone in her financial position ought to have had.

In the middle of telling me about her unhappiness, she would start telling me about her animals and she would start laughing. Without her realizing it, and without being able to stop herself, she would become happy.

Sometimes she needed help getting places, so I would drive her, and she would see every hawk or owl roosting on a power pole, and she would laugh. This seems petty, but I began to suspect that however badly wrong her life had gone. She was wrong to think that her life was unhappy. At least she was not unhappy all the time.

She wanted to get my sympathy. This was how she related to everyone who might be able to help her. But she couldn’t completely pull off the act.

Sometimes we convince ourselves that we have to be unhappy all the time. It becomes our calling in life, even though it makes us the source of all kinds of trouble for others. A continual unhappiness becomes our solemn duty; and some of us become terribly successful at it. But this systematic unhappiness is not really possible, in this life, and we should not try to achieve it. We should not fool ourselves about the holiness of unhappiness.

Unhappiness is the law of hell. It is a great temptation. It is a great drama. But there are other dramas we could play in. The gospel gives us a much better drama to play in.

Jesus, if we let him, will save us here. Jesus will call us to find happiness; somehow, somewhere, sometime. It will appear under our very noses.

Jesus is the master-stager of happiness. Sooner or later, we will be unable to stop something beautiful from occurring to us. We will be unable to stop something worthy of thanks from coming to us.

Those who followed Jesus and those who welcomed him were so wrong about him, and what he cared about, and what he came to do, that they didn’t deserve that parade. They didn’t deserve the happiness that Jesus created for them and set before them.

And maybe that is where we find the most important lesson of all. Jesus set his parade up for those who did not deserve it.

Here again the joy and happiness of Jesus are his grace to us. Maybe our most holy seriousness is a temptation that we have to give up and lay down at Jesus’ feet. We have to die to our seriousness above all.

Maybe this dying to sin will not be the sacrifice we think it is, once we have completed it and it is behind us. Maybe happiness is the most serious business of the kingdom of God and heaven. Except that happiness can only be found in very different places than we have looked for it so far.

We even think this dying stuff is a serious thing. Well it is a serious thing. Jesus wept in the face of death when he stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. (John 11:35) Jesus must have wept when he was a boy just a little older than twelve, standing by the tomb of his step-father Joseph.

But Jesus also gave thanks at the tomb of Lazarus, after he wept; because death was not the final word. Jesus knew that he was the one to have the final word.

Good Friday and Easter are coming. They are days of dying. They are days of rising in heaven and the resurrection.

These days are our way of living out, every year, the history of the good news, the history of the gospel. There is dying in these days, but life has the final word because Jesus has the final word. Happiness has the final word, because Jesus is the king of happiness.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Christ: The King of Just the Right Word

Preached April 10, 2011

Scripture readings: Genesis 3:1-13: Mark 10:46-52

I remember back in the old days when there was a comedienne named Gracie Allen who was famous for saying this: she said, “I never know what I’m thinking until I hear myself say it.”

Has that ever happened to you? Once in a while I will find myself saying or doing something that reveals a side of me that I was not aware of before. Maybe other people saw that side of me, but I didn’t; I couldn’t.

And then, there are the people who have the gift of bringing this out in us. Some of them are people we don’t like. They bring out the worst in us. We would like to think that what they bring out in us is the exception. But I think they bring out the truth.

It’s like looking into a mirror. There are mirrors that are kind to us, and mirrors that aren’t so kind; but even a carnival mirror will not tell us a complete lie about ourselves. They won’t show us something that is not there. They just show what is there in an exaggerated or a funny way.

The people who bring out the worst in me still bring out the truth in me. Then I have some serious thinking and praying to do.

There are also other people who reveal the unknown truth that lurks within us. These people bring out the best in us.

Most of my best friends, as a kid, sort of took me as I was. I was thankful for that; and that was a good thing.

But, when I was starting out in college, a fellow college student who was an older brother of a classmate of mine took me as I was, but he also helped me grow. Larry Jenkins was one of the people who helped me to recommit my life to Christ.

I learned a lot about prayer from Larry, and about living with faith in God and living with a generous spirit toward others. Larry was an excellent example of a Christian who took his faith seriously and yet he had the best sense of humor and of fun. He was someone who was always quicker to laugh at himself than at others, and he didn’t have an ounce of “churchiness” in him.

He helped me learn to dig into the Bible, and to interact and wrestle with what the Bible says. If I have ever taught anything helpful about the Bible, the roots of that are in what Larry Jenkins taught me about how to read it and understand it.

As important as all of that is, Larry did more than that. Larry also helped me to be more of a real human being than I had been before. He helped me live more without fear and more with confidence.

For instance, Larry helped me learn to drive. That sounds odd. I should have known how to drive before I was in college. I took drivers education and drivers training in high school, but I hadn’t done very well.

My dad took me out to practice once or twice, but basically my dad was of the opinion that I was one of those people who couldn’t drive, and shouldn’t drive. He explained this to me more than once or twice. I was probably just born that way.

Even with Larry helping me learn to drive, it took me about four attempts to pass the drivers test. A lot of this was a matter of confidence. I was so nervous that I would shake. Before I finally passed, my dad had a talk with me and reminded me of the fact that I should accept the fact that I was one of those people who couldn’t drive.

Now the fact is that this is pretty much how my dad taught me to think about myself in every area of my life. It was very discouraging. It was really debilitating. I knew I couldn’t do anything. My dad had a lot of admirable qualities and a lot of integrity. But, with me, every thing that really mattered seemed to become a test that I managed to fail.

One good thing was that, eventually, he realized what he had done. A couple years before he died, he apologized for the way he treated me.

Larry took me as I was, but also he talked and acted as if I could be more than I was; and as if I could learn to do things. So he was the one who finally taught me how to drive.

He taught me a lot of other things as well. He helped be to simply be a person. He taught me how to be a person who could learn and grow. I had never been that before. That was, and is, a great gift.

Larry was able to help me, not only by means of his patience and his will to do me good; but he was able to help me because he always seemed to know the right thing to say: not necessarily the perfect thing, but the right thing.

Larry knew how to say the constructive thing. He knew how to explain something and how to ask me a question without discouraging me or belittling me.

This is an art; to know the right word. When other people know this art and use it for our good, they are a blessing to us. This art, in their hands, is a gift from God. This art is learned through a lot of paying attention, and through a lot of intense thinking and praying.

It is an art that comes from the very heart, and essence, and nature of God. It is an art that we were created for, and we can rediscover this art again in the love of Christ. Jesus Christ teaches this art of seeking the right word to those who want to follow him.

The first question that God asks in the Bible is, “Where are you?” Adam and Eve had just eaten the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They ate it because they thought it would make them as smart as God. They thought it would make it possible for them to know things independently, and not have to depend on God. They could be in charge of their own lives.

There are good things about being smart, but there are bad ways to be smart. It’s like the cartoon about the boy whose parents are taking him to play in the Christmas pageant. He is wearing a crown and a robe, and his dad says, “Now son, remember you are a wise man and not a wise guy.” There is a way of thinking and acting that we think is wise, but it is not wise at all.

Well God had designed the garden where Adam and Eve lived to be a place of fellowship with him; a place where they could grow, but not a place for them to be separate and independent. It was to be a place designed for them to learn about themselves as creatures of God, children of God, who were known and loved.

So God came to them there, in the cool of the day, and God knew exactly what was wrong. He knew what Adam and Eve had done.

There were all kinds of things that God could have said about this. He could have said, “Adam and Eve! I see you hiding behind that cedar tree. You come out this very instant. You’ve stolen that fruit I told you not to eat; haven’t you? Just wait till I get my hands on you!”

But God didn’t say anything like that. God knew just the right word to say. He said, “Where are you?”

Adam and Eve were afraid of God. But their kind of the fear of the Lord is not what the Lord wants when the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord. The most frightening thing about God is that the Lord who made the universe, the Lord who made the heavens and the earth, the Lord who made time and space, loves us. God loves us. That should be the scariest thing in the world; and the most wonderful.

God’s question, “Where are you?” was a serious way of playing a game we play for fun. It was like playing “hide and seek” with really little children who are not so good at hiding.

You know where they are. Finding them is no problem. But the most important thing in the world for them is to experience what it means to be looked for and to be found.

The ultimate safety is to live in a world where, no matter how bad things are, no matter how much trouble you are in, you can be found and claimed. And that is what God’s question was about. In this scary world, fear and emptiness drive human beings to search for God. And they search, and they search, and they search, and they search, because they do not realize that they live in a world where God is searching for them; like a parent searching for a child who is not really hidden from them.

Notice, though, that Adam and Eve never gave God a straight answer to his questions. In their answers they try to never face what God is getting at. They answer in a way that shows that they hope to remain unfound.

Their answers were always defensive and self-serving, and that is the proof that eating the forbidden fruit was really the wrong thing to do. What they had done had changed them for the worse. They knew this. Their hearts and minds were already being poisoned by what they had done. They could no longer speak the truth without distorting it to their own advantage.

The truth is that, living as we do in a world where God is always saying just the right thing to us and asking us just the right questions, against our will, we are like children sticking their fingers in their ears and saying, “La, la, la, la, la, la! La, la, la, la, la, la!”

When we are going wrong, we never give God’s questions a straight answer. We are too mixed up to even know what he is saying or why he is saying it.

Jesus is God becoming a human like us, in order to bridge the gap; in order to pull our fingers from our ears; in order to find us in our hiding places and ask us, “Where are you?” And so Jesus is always the master of just the right word.

There are so many examples of this, but here is one. Jesus asked the blind man Bartimaeus the strangest question that you could ever ask a blind person, “What do you want me to do for you?” I mean this is the strangest question when Jesus is the one asking it.

Bartimaeus knew that Jesus was at least a healer. He knew that Jesus had the power to heal the blind; and Jesus (being Jesus) knew that Bartimaeus knew this.

Actually Bartimaeus might have been asked the same question every day: “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus lived by begging. That is what most blind people did to earn their keep. Bartimaeus lived by telling people what he wanted them to do for him.

“What do you want me to do for you Bartimaeus?” asked the people of the town, or the people passing by on the road. Here, I have a penny I can give you. I have a loaf of bread I can give you. I can lead you to the well for a drink, Bartimaeus.

When I ask someone what I can do for them, I feel as if those are almost the only kind of things I can do for them. I can give them a ride. I can pay a bill, or buy them food or gas. Since I am in the Lions club, which specializes in care for sight and hearing, if they have a problem with their eyes, I can take them to an eye doctor, or find a way to get them into a hospital where they can get a cornea implant. I suppose I can help them get a seeing-eye dog.

And yet I can do more than this. I guess I can do more. I can listen. I can share some thought that God puts on my heart. I can pray.

But for people like Bartimaeus, only God can heal. I am not God. And people need help in ways where I have no power to help. We all know people whom we have no power to help.

There is a kind of faith (a good kind of faith) that gives us courage to ask people for help, when we need it. Humility is one of the qualities of God that we see in Jesus. In Christ, God became our servant for the purpose of rescuing us from the power of sin and death.

Humility is one of the qualities that we must have if we are to belong to the humble God. So it is a good kind of faith to be daring enough to help other people to know what they might do for you. There are people who care, who want to know. They deserve to know.

It is another kind of faith to answer God’s question, “What do you want me to do for you?” In this case it is a completely different question.

There are needs beyond human help. There are times when no human help seems to be enough. The question of Jesus required faith from Bartimaeus, simply to name the impossible desire that he wanted.

There were good reasons for Bartimaeus to not want to see. If Bartimaeus was born blind, or if he had become blind due to one of the many childhood illnesses that were common in those days, he would have hardly any notion of how to live with eyes that could see.

Bartimaeus was an expert at living blind. There are ways that we all are living blind, but we manage to get along. I have known a number of blind people who were amazingly independent. You can do a lot of things for yourself when you are blind.

If Bartimaeus suddenly gained his sight, he might not be able to find his way home without closing his eyes first. To see his way home would only confuse him. He knew how to feel his way, but not how to see his way. And he would have no way of earning a living, or earning his keep. His effective begging days would be over. He had never been an apprentice to anyone to learn a trade. Labor was cheap. Why would anyone train him when he was blind?

He was blind! If he worked on a farm, or in the field, or in a garden, he wouldn’t know what anything looked like. At least to begin with, he wouldn’t know the difference between a weed and a plant. He had no idea what the work he was supposed to do would look like.

There are a lot of things we want. There are a lot of things we regret not having. But the question Jesus asks you may be different than you think. We are often not brave enough to want what is best. Jesus asks us to want a world and a way of life that we are afraid to see and afraid to live.

Each one of us should want something that everything in our life, up to this point in time, has told us that we are incompetent for. You should want something that you don’t know how to do. You should want something for which you feel unready and unworthy. I don’t know what that is for you, and I am not going to tell you what it is for me.

Bartimaeus asked for his sight, but he really wanted much more. The miracle was that he got a lot more than he asked. He got Jesus.

We read that, the moment he was healed, he took off with Jesus and followed Jesus on the road. And that road was only a few miles and a few days away from Jerusalem; and the arrest, and the condemnation, and the crucifixion of Jesus.

The road Bartimaeus took would lead him into a life he could never have imagined. He was completely unprepared for it. The road took him to see Jesus die on the cross, and probably be among the mourners who went into hiding from sheer terror. Imagine taking a road that led so fast from healing to tragedy and terror.

And yet, the seeing man would probably have been one of the first ones to walk out of one of the city gates of Jerusalem to find the empty grave. There he met, once again, the one who had given him sight, now with wounds in his hands and feet and side, and very much alive.

Jesus had met the worst things that any of us can fear. Jesus had met the changes that terrify us most, so that we can meet them without fear. He has the power to offer us the life that we are afraid of, that we are afraid to ask for.

Jesus defeated Bartimaeus’ blindness when he healed him. And soon Bartimaeus would see that Jesus had healed his heart, and mind, and life. Bartimaeus would see that Jesus was the King of the kingdom of God.

God is our maker and our savior. Because God brings so much to us, God knows just the right word to ask us. And Jesus is the Word of God from the very beginning.

Jesus is God for us, and he can say the right word to us for God. Jesus is human for us, and can say the right word to us as our brother and our friend. Jesus is the servant, the washer of our feet. Jesus is the victim and the sacrifice for the sins and evils of the world; and for your sins and evils as well.

Jesus is the giver of forgiveness and grace, and the giver of freedom and abundant life. Jesus is the giver of hope, the giver of heaven, and the giver of a new creation.

All that Jesus is and that he has done is a message to you, a good word to you: just the right word to offer you a life from God. Jesus is a word that seeks you out, and finds you where you are, and asks you what you really want; as long as it is something that only he can give.

The Lord’s Supper is a word too. It is a message about the word that came down from heaven in Jesus. This meal tells us that Jesus is our host in this world, and that the food he gives us is not junk food.

His food is nourishment, and grace to make us whole. His food is his promise to give us something better than we can ever know how to ask.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Christ: The King of Care Givers

Contemplated for April 4, 2011, but not written into a sermon.

Scripture readings:
Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Mark 6:30-44

There is a powerful compassion in Jesus that is divine and sometimes seems to be completely foreign to human nature. Sometimes it seems completely foreign to us, except that it enters into our hearts through our relationship with Jesus. It becomes the center of what Jesus desires to do within us.

Paul in Philippians 1:8, talks about longing he felt for the presence of his spiritual brothers and sisters. He longed for them with “the bowels of Christ”. “Bowels” is the Greek word that (translated literally) describes the passion and compassion that a person feels so strongly that it is like a physical feeling in the gut.

This feeling makes it hard for us to sit still. It makes us want to do something about it. This is a feeling that gives us a mission; something to do. It changes us and it makes us into instruments of change in the lives of others. Jesus gives us the work of his compassion.

The compassion of Jesus seemed to move in his “bowels”; the central organs of the body. The compassion of Jesus runs deeper than thought and calculation. It is a compassion moved by instinct and by nature. It is very much the motivation behind everything that Jesus is, and says and does. This applies to us as receivers and witnesses of his grace. It motivates us as partners in his grace reaching out to others.

It is a compassion that gives, even where it may seem (in some ways) unnecessary. The literal text of the story tells us that the people could have gone out to buy food for themselves; and there is no reason given here to doubt this. The compassion of Jesus is almost like the most gracious hospitality. Real love loves extravagantly.

It is a king’s job to feed his people. See King David, with the thanksgiving sacrifices that he offered along the roadway when he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Every six steps of the way, from the little village where the Ark had been kept, all the way to Jerusalem, David ordered a bull and a fattened calf to be sacrificed. (2 Samuel 6:12) This was a sacrifice that was intended to be cooked and eaten by the crowd that gathered along the road for the great event. As King of Israel, David was feasting his people.

In the journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, the Lord God, as the true King of Israel, fed his people in the wilderness with manna as their daily bread.

As King of Israel, Jesus fed his people by teaching them, and healing them, and by providing them with that miraculous meal of bread and fish.

In the gospel stories, beside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus showed his care for the whole person (mental, and physical, and spiritual). So should we.

Jesus’ compassion was deep even when the needs of others interrupted his plans for the disciples. The compassion of Jesus, working through us, demands that we give free rein to his love even when the need for it comes in the form of interruptions.

Matthew tells us (in his version of this story) the additional, specific information that Jesus was teaching them about the kingdom of God. We know that the core of the kingdom of God would turn out to be Jesus’ work of the new creation. The kingdom of God comes from the incarnation of God in Christ. The kingdom comes through the death of Christ on the cross to take away sin. It comes through the resurrection of Christ that conquers the power of death.

When we share the care-giving of Jesus, we live out the new creation that Jesus puts in us. We show the kingdom of God to the world, and we do this as ordered by Jesus, who said, “You give them something to eat.”

Jesus, Storms, and Peace

Preached on April 4, 2011 (First preached: 3-7-99)

Scripture readings: Isaiah 43:1-2; Mark 6: 45-52

One Sunday morning, a small child was acting up during worship. The parents did their best to keep order but they were losing the battle.

At last, the father picked the child up and walked back up the aisle to go outside. Just before they disappeared, the child called out to the congregation, “Pray for me! Pray for me!”

We see something about prayer in the story we have read from the gospel.

Actually it tells us about several great needs that we have as God’s children.

It tells us that we need to pray, that we need an inner focus, a spiritual contact, or anchor, or foundation to keep us spiritually alive.

It tells us that we need to know that we matter, that we belong to the Lord: the certainty that Jesus cares about us in the storm, where life is not easy.

It tells us that we need to trust, to have faith in the Lord’s power; the Lord’s ability to provide for us and to help us.

Mark says that the disciples were amazed at Jesus walking on the water because they had forgotten about the loaves. What loaves? Those were the five loaves of bread that had gone with the two fish that Jesus had blessed and served in order to fee a crowd of more than 5,000 people.

And that reminds us that we have not read the whole story. We need to look back through this sixth chapter of Mark to see all the new experiences that were happening to the disciples; all the ways that Jesus was changing their lives.

What does it mean to be a Christian? It means to be a disciple. Remember what a disciple is. A disciple is a learner, like a student. A disciple is always learning. But it isn’t just book knowledge; although we do have a Book (the Bible) to learn from.

A disciple is learning about something practical. What Jesus gives us is both spiritual and practical at the same time. A disciple is learning to do something new. A disciple is learning to be something, or somebody, that he or she is not. We are learning to follow Jesus; we are learning to be his kind of person, and this gets very practical and concrete.

But, with Jesus, we are also learning something that is completely beyond our ability. Our goal is to be full of love, full of generosity, full of patience, full of the truth, full of faithfulness, full of forgiveness. These are qualities that belong to Jesus. Being a disciple means patiently letting the Lord, our Master, our great one, build his character, build his personality inside us. Being a disciple means being in situations where Jesus’ personality has to rub off on us, or dig deep in us.

At the place where we read today, Jesus is just beginning to put the disciples through their paces. Jesus is just starting to send them out to represent him. Jesus is making them messengers of the Kingdom. That is, Jesus was making them other people’s contact with the kingdom, and the power, the grace of God. Contact with Jesus makes it possible for other people to contact him through us.

Who of us is capable of making this happen? And so, sometimes, being a disciple, being a Christian, being part of the church (the Body of Christ) seems like really impossible work; or like a job that turns out to require way more effort than we ever imagined.

After the disciples were sent out, they came back to Jesus excited and worn out. They had so much to do that they didn’t even have time to eat. They needed to get away. Jesus said, “You need a rest. Let’s have some quiet time together, just you and me. Let’s get in a boat and row across the lake to a quiet place.”

They were rowing, but they were supposed to be resting too. They didn’t need to hurry, so they took it easy, and it seems that a lot of people saw them take off and decided to follow them on foot around the lake. The crowd gradually grew as they jogged through the villages along the lakeshore. When the disciples landed they saw this crowd coming toward them: more than 5,000 people.

Their plans for time off and some getaway time with Jesus vanished before their eyes. It became the crowd’s time with Jesus. But Jesus showed the disciples an amazing thing. First he told them to do an impossible thing. “Give these people something to eat.” “Where are we going to find enough bread for sale to feed this crowd? And what would we buy it with?”

So Jesus said, “Give me what you have.” They didn’t have anything at all, but the Gospel of John tells us that there was a boy in the crowd who had packed a lunch of five small barley loaves and two dried fish. (John 6:9)

And Jesus did the impossible. He fed the crowd. There were more leftovers, after they had eaten, than there had been food to begin with. The Gospel of John tells us that the crowd was so amazed that they were sure that Jesus must be the Messiah, the savior King.

They tried to make him accept the office of King. The disciples would have been excited by this, too, because they thought the same thing as the crowd.

There must have be a lot of confusion that afternoon, pretty much a mob scene. It was getting late in the day. The disciples got sent off in the boat. Jesus told them to go to the other side of the lake six or seven miles from where they were.

Jesus told the crowds to go home and he escaped up into the hills. And when Jesus was alone on the hilltop overlooking the lake, he began to pray: thinking about his purpose, what he had come to do; thinking about a whole world of people who needed him but couldn’t understand him; thinking about his disciples, his friends, whom he was teaching to be his partners. Jesus was making them a part of his purpose, part of his mission.

Jesus was making them people who could stand for him. But they couldn’t understand him either. They weren’t really listening to him. Jesus kept on praying from that hill top, where he had a view of the lake, and of the boat miles away, where his friends were struggling, rowing against the wind.

By the fourth watch in the night, about three in the morning, they had only gotten half way across, only about three miles, three miles in nine hours of rowing. Jesus prayed and watched and thought of them.

Jesus did alone what he had wanted to do with them. He prayed.

Jesus wanted to give his friends a time of peace, and quiet, and prayer with him. They had looked forward to it; but there were too many interruptions, too much to do. They felt cheated, and deprived, and angry.

And Jesus had sent them out to row against the wind. Their problem out in that boat might have made them pray, but I don’t think they prayed out there.

They had gotten a bad start and it only got worse. They had started out tired. They were frustrated. They were really trying to follow Jesus, but it was turning out to be hard, even though they had seen him do wonderful things. Those things had been for others and not for them.

They had thought that, if they put some effort into it, things would their way. They were supposed to be inspired and energized, but I don’t think they were.

It is not hard for us to find ourselves in the same boat. Nothing in this world blows our way. In this world God himself is a rebel. And he sends us into the wind. And we are rowing against the wind. And it is not fun. It does not make us happy.

Paul, in the eighth chapter of Romans says some beautiful, awesome, mysterious things about prayer. He says that there is something going on inside God, where the Holy Spirit is praying for us, and Jesus, the Son of the Father is praying for us, and this all has to do with our being changed, and growing, and becoming real children of God.

Somehow (within the heart of God) the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are mulling over their thoughts for us. The Lord is focusing on his desires for you and me. Jesus, on the hillside was doing this.

Real, life-giving prayer, the kind of prayer we need, asks to look into the heart of the Lord, to see his thoughts for us. Jesus was praying about how he, and his disciples, and the world all fit together in one mission.

The prayers, that help us to be renewed, are the prayers that ask how we can play a part in the Lord’s plan for his church and his world. The prayers that keep us spiritually alive are the prayers where we ask the Lord how it is that we can do something (do anything). How can we become something that is impossible for us without his help?

At this point, faith means knowing that we matter. The disciples were having trouble with this. Their work with Jesus was beginning to make them think that the crowd mattered more to Jesus than they did; or that the work mattered more than they did; or that being a disciple just meant being a slave, continually running around to face the work that needed doing.

But, even though they had missed out on that quiet, renewing time with Jesus, Jesus found a way to come to them in the middle of their tired, angry frustration. It almost looked like Jesus was going to pass them by. Whatever they were thinking, the sight made them cry out; and Jesus stopped.

“Take courage! Be of good cheer! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” (Mark 6:50)

I think it is possible for us to let Jesus pass us by; because when I am angry, or tired, I would rather complain and rage in my heart than pray. When I am afraid, I would rather worry than pray.

And all the time Jesus wants to tell me about courage, and joy, and most of all to tell me he is really there. When it seems impossible, Jesus is there, and that is what gives us courage.

We have to trust. Trust me. Jesus was building a pattern of trust in the lives of his disciples; as he does in us. He was teaching them to have faith. He was giving them a constant experience of testing and deliverance. (Alan Cole, Mark, p. 115)

He would present them with something impossible for them, and then he would do something about it. They had examples of this to hold onto, if they chose to think about them. They had the feeding of the crowd to look back on, and many other experiences; more than they could count.

Mark tells us that their hearts were hardened. They were just too set in their ways to learn very well. They were just too used to thinking like unbelievers, thinking without faith.

They were struggling and cursing under their breath, and all the while Jesus was watching, and Jesus was taking those steps to them across the water. Jesus was thinking of what to say to them when he caught up with them.

“Have courage. Don’t be afraid. I am here.”

It was just one more time they would all look back on and say to themselves. “Wouldn’t it have been so much better if we had only trusted and believed?” Someday, whatever is going on in our lives now, we will look back and say the same. “Wouldn’t it have been so much better (so much easier) if we had only trusted and believed?”