Journey With Jesus, Day 2: Offending Sensibilities

Mark 2:1-3:6

In today’s passage, we see Jesus offending sensibilities.  He claims authority to forgive sins.  He eats with tax collector and sinners.  His disciples act differently than those of the Pharisees and even John the Baptist.  And to top it all off, Jesus has strange ideas about the Sabbath.  Ultimately, the Pharisees are so offended that they begin to plot Jesus’ death.

Though they are not mentioned directly in this regard, I wonder if the disciples’ sensibilities may also have been offended by Jesus.  In yesterday’s reading, we saw Jesus call two sets of brothers to follow him.  Both sets were fishermen, but a close reading reveals that they were probably not in the same economic class.  (This reading follows a very brief speculation in David Garland’s commentary on Mark.)  When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, they are throwing their net into the lake from the shore.  There is not boat to speak of.  When he calls James and John, though, they are with their father in a boat along with “hired men.”  It seems that James and John are bit more well-to-do than Simon and Andrew.  I wonder if the difference in means ever caused tension in the group.  (After reading this post, a congregant raised a good objection to this reading of the fishermen.  Follow this link, if you’d like to follow up.)

Then in today’s reading, Jesus calls another disciple who is very different from the first four.  They, at least, were all fishermen.  Levi is nothing of the sort.  He is a tax collector who makes his living collecting funds for Israel’s overlords and by skimming off the top.  As such, Levi would have been despised by his own countrymen.  Jesus’ other disciples already have reason to dislike him.  But their dislike may have gone beyond general indignation at Levi’s profession.  In his commentary on Mark, Ben Witherington suggests that Simon, Andrew, James, and John may well have known Levi first hand because fish were a taxable commodity.  In this light, their dislike of Levi may have been more personal in nature.  Whatever the case, Jesus calls people from disparate backgrounds who are now joined because of their disicpleship to him.  I imagine that it may have been challenging to find common ground in light of real differences in life circumstances and even dislike of one another.  At times, following Jesus puts us in strange company, and the call is to unity rather than discord.  Offending sensibilities, indeed!

In this light, one does not need to be on the other side of the fence like the Pharisees to be offended by Jesus.  Disciples can be offended as well!  There are times when Jesus steps heavily on the ground of our lives and calls us to move beyond ourselves.  This may be in the call to unity or the call to forgiveness;  in the call to service or the call to purity.  Whatever the call, Jesus sometimes makes claims that ruffle our feathers.  The question is what we will do with our offense.  Will we become hostile like the Pharisees and seek to neutralize his voice?  Or will we seek to heed his word and example?  Herein lies the dilemma of discipleship.

Journey With Jesus, Day 1: Touching the Untouchable

Mark 1:1-45 contains a number of stories that draw my attention.  John the Baptist captures the imagination of all Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside.  Jesus contends with Satan and then begins his ministry to the amazement of the people.  Jesus prays at a time when I would be looking to sleep and as a result is confident of his calling even to the point of turning down a great opportunity to capitalize on his growing fame.  All of these stories are compelling and deserving of attention, but my eyes are drawn today to the last story in our reading: Jesus’ healing of the leper.

No doubt, leprosy is a difficult disease in any society, and this would have been especially true in 1st century Judaism.  In this context, leprosy could refer to any number of skin diseases as outlined in Leviticus 13, and we are therefore not exactly sure what kind of skin disease afflicted the leper in the story.  We do know, however, that because he had been diagnosed with leprosy, he was considered religiously unclean.  As such, he would have been avoided much like a person with the swine flu is avoided in our society today.  His uncleanness was viewed as contagious, and people would have given him a wide berth.  In fact, Leviticus 13:45-46 calls for drastic action in cases of leprosy.  Lepers are commanded to “let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’”  More than this, “They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”  The man in the story is a man who has lost his standing in society.  How long has it been since he last felt a human touch?  And just what has he lost?  Did he have a job?  A family?  We can’t know with certainty, but we do know this: the man is desperate.

Desperation first drives the man to approach Jesus.  Remember, he is unclean and is therefore not exactly the kind of person you want getting too close.  Yet he ignores convention and boldly approaches Jesus.  And then notice his posture.  He does not stand and ask politely to be healed.  No, he begs on his knees.  His very posture is a statement of his desperation.  And then notice the content of his plea: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  He seems completely confident in Jesus’ ability to heal.  He is less confident, however, in Jesus’ willingness to do so.  It is as if he has been shunned so many times that he expects Jesus to do the same.  Here we see a desperate man out on a limb who half expects to be turned down.

But Jesus proves different from the rest.  Rather than shrinking from this unclean leper or driving him away, Jesus speaks those simple words that change everything: “I am willing.  Be clean.”  The man’s plea has not fallen on deaf ears.  Where he expected rejection, he finds compassion.  He finds healing.  And notice how Jesus chooses to heal.  Though he is fully able to utter a simple word of command, Jesus chooses instead to bring healing with a touch.  And at his touch, the leprosy fades.  The man is healed!  But I imagine the healing went deeper than this.  Jesus does more than heal a disease.  In touching this man who has been avoided because of his disease, Jesus treats him with the dignity that had been so lacking from everyone else.  Here we see Jesus touch the untouchable and bring healing to both body and soul.  He is a marvelous Savior, indeed!

As I look at this story, two different readings come to mind.  First, we can identify with the leper.  Have you ever felt unclean and untouchable?  If so, I want you to know that Jesus still touches untouchables today.  This is the heart of the gospel, “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)  Our confession as Christians is that we were unworthy of love and compassion but have received them in Christ.  We were all untouchables who have experienced the healing touch of the Savior!  This Jesus still shows compassion and embodies a love that will not be stopped by our impurities.

Second, we can hear a challenge from Jesus to go and do likewise.  After all, if Jesus touched untouchables, can we as his disciples do any less?  Who are the untouchables in our own lives?  Who are the people that we avoid like the plague?  Who do we deem to be beneath our notice?  I wonder if Jesus would agree.  Or would we find him treating with dignity those we ignore and avoid?  In light of this story, I suspect the latter.

May we, then, remember with thanksgiving the Savior who touched us when we were untouchable.  And may we experience his love anew in our moments of untouchableness even today.  And may we also hear the call of our Lord to go and do the same.  May we touch untouchables on his behalf, treating them with dignity and thereby showing them that bold love of God that we ourselves have received in Christ.

Journey With Jesus

Scroll down for newer Journey With Jesus posts.

During the Easter season of 2012, Immanuel Baptist Church will walk through the Gospel of Mark over the two week period leading up to Easter. Our purpose in taking this “Journey With Jesus” is to listen to him as disciples and allow him to speak into our lives in fresh ways. As we walk this journey together, I will be posting my own devotional thoughts on each reading, and participants are invited to leave comments as they desire. Good Friday will mark a communal reading of the crucifixion at Immanuel’s Good Friday Service, and Easter Sunday will unfold similarly as we consider Mark’s account of the resurrection at the 11:00am Worship Service.

Here’s a schedule of readings with links to Bible Gateway:

Sunday, March 25: Mark 1:1-45
Monday, March 26: Mark 2:1-3:6
Tuesday, March 27: Mark 3:7-34
Wednesday, March 28: Mark 4:1-34
Thursday, March 29: Mark 4:35-5:43
Friday, March 20: Mark 6:1-56
Saturday, March 31: Mark 7:1-8:21
Sunday, April 1: Mark 8:22-10:52
Monday, April 2: Mark 11:1-12:12
Tuesday, April 3: Mark 12:13-44
Wednesday, April 4: Mark 13:1-37
Thursday, April 5: Mark 14:1-11
Friday, April 6: Mark 14:12-15:47 (Communal Reading at Immanuel’s Good Friday Service)
Saturday, April 7: A day for reflection
Sunday, April 8: Mark 16:1-8 (Communal Reading at Immanuel’s 11:00am Worship Service)

A Christmas Meditation

The scene is more lowly than idyllic. A child has been born and wrapped in cloth. He lies in a manger because no guest room can be found. We’ve heard the story so many times that we can miss the stark backwardness of it all. The Son of God should have come in trappings of greatness. He should have been born to power and ease. Yet he spends the first night of his human life lying in a feeding trough.

There is a scandal of lowliness in the nativity.

But the scandal goes deeper than this. The child is born in low estate, but the true wonder of the nativity is found in the birth itself. The One through whom and for whom all things were made has become a part of his creation. The Infinite has taken on finite existence. The One who sustains all things by his powerful word has become completely dependent on the sustenance of another. God the Son has taken on human flesh and become the Son of man. And on this night and many to follow, he lies helpless and dependent in the frail existence of a newborn child.

There is also a scandal of humanness to be found.

This is the force of the incarnation. The great has become small. The infinite finite. The uncontainable contained. The Apostle Paul put it like this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV)

Augustine waxed poetic on the same theme: “He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.” (Sermon 190 3, 4)

The rich has become poor. The strong has become weak. And all this that we might become rich and strong through him.

We are used to speaking of the love that led Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps we should also speak of the love that led him to his birth.

In the nativity, God the Son has poured himself out and taken human form, and in this we see the nature of God on display. Jesus, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:6-7, NIV) It is in the nature of God to pour himself out on behalf of others, and though it is scandalous to us, it is natural to him. Such is the wonder of the God we serve. Such is the splendor of a newborn baby who bears the weight of the world. Such is the beauty of Christmas.

With Him

In Mark 3:13-15, we see Jesus appointing the twelve.  As the text states, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.  He appointed twelve, that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (NIV 2011)  As we observe the reasons for this calling out, our attention is often drawn to the two-fold ministry of preaching and casting out demons.  These, of course, are two activities in which Jesus himself engages.  The apostles are appointed to participate in and further the ministry of Jesus!  As we apply this story to our own experience, we find that we are given the same opportunity.  Though in different ways than the apostles, we also share in and further the ministry of Jesus as we carry the word and minister to the oppressed.  In this light, the calling of Jesus on our lives centers around what we do on behalf of Jesus and the kingdom.

To stop here, though, is to miss another extremely important part of the story.  The apostles are indeed appointed to further Jesus’ ministry, but they are called for another purpose as well: “to be with him.”  Note that this reason for their calling comes before the others and is certainly of equal importance.  In fact, Jesus will not send his disciples out in ministry for another three chapters.  They must first be with him before they go for him.  And after they go for him, they will return to be with him yet again.

Ultimately, this call to be with makes a lot of sense.  The apostles must be with the one to whom they will testify after the resurrection.  They must learn the content of their preaching from him.  They must observe his ministry before taking part.  All of these are very practical necessities that demand being with the one who calls.

But the fulfillment of these practical necessities is not the only thing we see happening to the apostles as they are with Jesus, as if they must simply observe Jesus’ preaching and teaching and go do the same.  No, we see much more transpiring in this with relationship.  The apostles are pulled and stretched, they are challenged and rebuked.  The apostles are formed by their relationship with Jesus.  This forming will enable them to embody the kingdom that they will proclaim.  And we can also posit that the disciples are simply with Jesus.  They fellowship and break bread with him.  The disciples are not called to be mere workhorses for the kingdom.  They are called to fellowship with the king himself!

Just as it is important for us to hear the call to kingdom activity as we listen to this story, so it is also important for us to hear the call to simply be with the king.  In this, we hear the call to simple fellowship, and we learn that we are worth more to Jesus than only what we can do for him.  And we also hear the call to formation, for it is often in being with Jesus that we are challenged and formed and thereby come to embody the kingdom that we proclaim.

In the end, I’m not sure that there is any one prescription for being with our Lord, though I would suggest prayer and spiritual reading as foundational disciplines for relationship (even these will be pursued in various ways).  More than the how, which can differ from person to person, I want to stress the call.  We are called to be with Jesus.  And as we are with Jesus, we find that our activity for Jesus flows from this relationship with the king.  Let us, then, rest in the presence of the king.  Let us hear his words anew.  And let us revel in the privilege of being with the one who calls and saves.

The Mission of God

We often think of mission as something that happens “over there.”  In a sense, this is not a bad definition.  God does, after all, call missionaries to take the gospel to far-away places, and it is our privilege to support missionaries in this endeavor.  But the definition can’t stop there.  No, it must extend far past the work of the few to the work of the many.  Mission is the vocation of the whole church, not just a segment of it.  But even this understanding of mission is not grand enough.  A dynamic, full-bodied understanding of mission must reach past the few to the many and then even to God himself.

The theological parlance for this wider missional understanding is found in the term Missio Dei (Latin for “Mission of God”), and this shift in focus from us to God is significant.  As Jenson and Wilhite note in their book The Church, “This is not a mission from God, but the mission of God.  Where the first emphasizes divine sponsorship of our program … the second emphasizes a divine program in which we graciously have been included.”[1]  God is on the move, and we are caught up in his movement.

So just how are God’s people caught up in God’s mission?  I would suggest two ways.  First, we are the recipients of God’s mission.  This is seen clearly in our salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  At one time, we were estranged from God because of our sin, but God has reconciled us to himself in Christ.  Not only this, he now makes us new as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and walk in the ways of the kingdom.  We are first recipients of God’s mission because he saves us!

Second, we become instruments of God’s mission.  Like Paul, who called himself Christ’s ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), we have become witnesses to God’s saving action in the world.  At times we are given opportunity to speak the message of salvation to those around us.  Always, though, we are called to live the message.  As Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  As Evangelicals and Baptists, we believe that words are very often necessary.  After all, “faith comes from hearing the message.” (Romans 10:17; NIV)  At the same time, the quote above calls our attention to an important truth: the spoken word of the gospel should not be divorced from the lived life of the gospel.  In an importance sense, our lives are sermons in themselves!  How is this so?  Because God is working in us, transforming us through the work of the Holy Spirit and leading us in the ways of the kingdom.  And as he does, our transformed lives become signs to those around us of what God is doing in the world!

Of course, being an instrument of God’s mission can be intimidating.  After all, we’re not perfect and often fall short of the mark.  But perfection isn’t the point.  Rather, responsive obedience to God’s leading and working is the key, and here is where things get interesting.  As we welcome God’s work into our lives and are made new, we continue to be recipients of God’s mission, and our continued reception forms us into useful instruments of the same mission.  We receive and further the mission of God, and it turns out that these roles are more intertwined than we may have thought.  For our formation into the image of Christ has a missional aspect in itself, and as we walk with God, we are caught up into his beautiful movement toward the world.

[1] Matt Jenson and David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark International, 2010), 155.

A Disciple’s Song

I will follow you wherever You lead
Carry my cross, bow at Your feet
I will walk in Your ways
And seek Your face
I’ll learn to love You and walk in Your grace

I’ll cry out to You
I’ll wait for You in the still and silence
I’ll live my life for You
I live my life for Your glory
I give myself to You

I will walk when I grow weary
I will walk despite the pain
I will follow You wherever you lead
To see Your kingdom come on this earth and in me

I’ll cry out to You
I’ll wait for You in the still and silence
I’ll live my life for You
I live my life for Your glory
I give myself to You