Tag: Mark

Encountering Jesus (Mark 5)

by on May.22, 2016, under Sermon

Today we continue a series through the Gospel of Mark. Throughout the first four chapters of Mark, Jesus has been growing in popularity. This man, Jesus, had brought a new kind of teaching, a teaching ‘with authority’ (1:27); he had cast out demons; he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a paralytic and many others who were sick. Mark records the reaction of the crowds:

This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12)

But there was also a growing opposition. More and more, Jesus was coming into conflict with the teachers of the law, the Pharisees. This all came to a head in the latter part of chapter 3. The Pharisees came together to accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. They were so persuasive that even Jesus’ own family were convinced that, at the least, Jesus must be out of his mind (Mark 3:21).
Not all the opposition was human in origin, either. Two weeks ago, Tim recounted an incident from the end of Mark 4 where Jesus and his disciples are out in a boat and a huge storm arises, threatening the swamp them. Even nature seems against him! Yet Jesus rebukes wind and waves and they submit to his command. The disciples ‘were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”‘ (Mark 4:41).

Which brings us to Mark 5. In this chapter, Jesus demonstrates his authority over evil and oppression; sickness; and even over death itself.

As they get out of the boat, Jesus and his disciples are approached by a man ‘with an evil spirit’ (v. 2). Mark is at pains to emphasise the power of this evil spirit: in spite of many attempts it cannot be bound, let alone subdued,1 by any human effort; it names itself ‘Legion’, a picture of military strength in numbers. Afraid of his strength, the people of his village had driven him out, with the result that he was living in the local cemetery. In other words, he was as good as dead.

Reading about evil spirits prompts an almost contemptuous response in many today. ‘That’s just how they described people with schizophrenia, and other kinds of psychosis.’ Yet we ought not to jump to conclusions. C. S. Lewis once wrote,

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.2

Possibly this man would receive a particular medical diagnosis today, and would be treated and, perhaps, medicated, accordingly. But I would certainly not want to say that all who have mental health issues are possessed; nor would I want to say that all who are possessed will manifest mental health issues.

Nevertheless, there are two factors that confirm Mark’s analysis of this man’s situation. Firstly, he had been driven into isolation, cut off from anyone to show him compassion or care for him. This, to me, is one of the signs of evil at work. The second sign is found in verse 5: ‘Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.’ That tendency towards self-harm is a strong indicator of an evil spirit trying to deface the image of God found in him.

Many people today find themselves in similar straits, often totally unaware of the path they are on. Sometimes it comes in the form of an addiction: drug and alcohol addicts find themselves increasingly isolated as they hurt the people who love them, even as they are destroying their own health. Adulterers and porn addicts devalue human sexuality and damage their capacity for meaningful relationship. But sometimes it can be addictions to more ‘respectable’ things that isolate and harm: wealth; power; beauty; success. Sometimes it is ‘lonely at the top’ because of all the people stepped on in getting there. Sometimes the relentless pursuit of physical perfection pushes people away rather than attracting them.

What is it in your life that isolates you from others, that causes them to push you away or you to push them away? Human beings are made to be in relationship. What is it that causes you to denigrate or damage the image of God in you or in others? Is your head often filled with thoughts of failure, of self-loathing, of worthlessness? These things may or may not be a sign of spiritual oppression, and you will require wise and godly counsel to discern and address the root causes. That was what this man needed, but instead his community drove him out.

Then, one day, he met Jesus… and everything changed.

Not far from there, a man named Jairus was getting frantic as he watched his daughter dying in front of him. He was a man of wealth, influence, and standing in his community, but nothing he did seemed to make any difference. He had called in the best doctors, all of whom had looked grave, shaken their heads, hemmed and hawed and eventually admitted they had no idea what was wrong let alone how it could be fixed. For twelve years he had delighted in his daughter: held her in his arms, nursed her when she was sick, laughed and cried, danced and played, and now… it was all going to end. This had come out of nowhere and there was nothing – nothing – he could do about it.

Perhaps you can relate? What is it in your life that has rendered you powerless? Perhaps you have stood where Jairus stood, watching a loved one clinging to life with a desperate but failing grasp. The cause may be different – cancer, car accident, or catastrophe – but the emotional trauma is off the charts. Perhaps it is not a life under threat but a suddenly broken relationship – with a spouse, with a parent, with a child, with a friend – and you feel utterly helpless to do anything to restore it. For some the crisis might be financial – sudden unemployment, a fire destroys your home – and you don’t know how you’re going to get by. If you have stood in any of these places then you know something of the despair that Jairus must have felt.

Then, one day, Jairus met Jesus… and everything changed.

Amongst the crowd that day was a woman who ought not to have been there. Unlike Jairus, the last twelve years had not been spent in blissful family life but in increasing desperation, trying to find someone who could help her with her problem. You see, for twelve years she had bled from her uterus – if not constantly then at least considerably more often and more heavily than was to be expected. As a result she would have been constantly weak and in pain. If that was not bad enough, she was also considered ‘unclean’ because of the blood3, meaning that she could not engage in the religious life of her community, nor could anyone touch her without themselves being rendered ‘unclean’.4 That is why she ought not to have been there in that crowd that day. Yet she was desperate. So she forced her way through the crowd.

Is this where you find yourself today? I know there are some in this church who suffer from chronic illness that means they are often unable to worship with us on a Sunday morning. For others it is the infirmity that comes with old age that gets in the way. Or maybe you feel isolated from your church and your community because you have children whose special needs consume so much of your focus there is little time for anything else? Perhaps your job means you are in a different city each week and so never get to really settle into a church community. Do you long to connect with people but, for whatever reason, you just can’t? Then you know something of this woman’s desperation.

Then, one day, she met Jesus… and everything changed.

At one level, these three people are just about as different as could be: two lived on the fringes of society, the other was a respected citizen; two were men, the other a woman; two were Jews, the other a gentile; only Jairus was wealthy, though the woman may once have been so.5 If they had anything in common, it was their utter desperation and helplessness.

Nor is there any common pattern in the way they were delivered from their maladies: one was healed with a word, one was healed with a touch, and one was healed with a word and a touch. Certainly all three had to exercise faith, but at different times. Jairus exercised faith before the act (in coming to Jesus, and in believing his words), and he exercised it on behalf of his daughter (who could no longer do so for herself). The woman’s greatest act of faith was not so much in her touch as in her coming forward in response to Jesus’ query. And it is doubtful whether or in what sense the demoniac exercised faith at all during his healing; his expression of faith came afterwards in his desire to follow Jesus, and in his going back to his village to bear witness.

Trying to read the gospels in order to discern a ‘method’ for ministry is ultimately futile. Mark seems to be deliberately undermining any attempt to categorise Jesus as a magician by showing that there is no fixed ‘method’. Even the ‘incantation’, talitha koum, – a common feature of magic stories – turns out to be nothing more than a gentle instruction to ‘get up’ in the girl’s native tongue, and is followed up with an instruction that she should be fed.

It is sobering to realise that many of the things Jesus did defy commonly accepted mission methods. What was he doing in gentile territory, pig-farming land, amongst the tombs? Evangelism ‘ought’ to be done where there are concentrations of people, not one-on-one in the wilderness with a crazy person. But Jesus had a divine appointment to free this man at this time from his oppression. Why would you allow such a man to then go and preach on his behalf. Surely, given his history, he would have little credibility. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark, this healed demoniac becomes the first missionary-preacher sent out by Jesus, a Gentile sent to the Gentiles,6 at a time before Jesus trusted even his own disciples to go out on their own.7 As Mark McCrindle said when he preached on this passage a couple of years ago, he was ‘a most unlikely ministry candidate’!8

By contrast, church marketers would have cheered at the approach of Jairus. Here at last was somebody influential, somebody who could really catapult Jesus into the stratosphere of religious opinion and popularity. Why would Jesus stop mid-stride and ask an apparently nonsensical question (‘Who touched me?’) and risk offending the very person who could get him places? Because he is about loving people rather than ‘getting places’. He calls the woman out, not to get ‘the credit’, still less to embarrass her, but so he could call her, ‘Daughter’ and bring her peace (v. 34). Why does he forbid Jairus and his family from telling anybody about the girl, when he had already commissioned the healed demoniac to go and spread the good news? Perhaps because it would take Jairus away from his family to do so, whereas the gentile man was being sent back to his.

The only constant through all three episodes is Jesus himself. At some point, all three found themselves at the feet of Jesus, begging for his help, his compassion, his mercy. And in each case he gave it… though, according to the Law, he had reason not to. You see, touching a gentile, or a woman with her period, or a dead body would all result in the one who touched being made unclean. They themselves would then be ineligible to participate in any kind of religious services, or to enter the temple. ‘Many teachers avoided touching women altogether, lest they become accidentally contaminated.’9 This is probably why the woman came forward ‘trembling with fear’ (v. 33); she feared that she had contaminated this rabbi, and was about to be publicly rebuked in front of the whole crowd.

But that is not the way Jesus saw it. You see, he knew something none of them knew: his purity would swallow up their impurity. And this was so because of what he was about to endure on the cross. Jesus could deliver the man from that evil spirit because he himself would endure all the devil’s wrath and yet emerge victorious. Like Moses before him, he commanded the waters – be still! – then used it to dispose of a hostile enemy, bringing about a new exodus and a new freedom. Jesus took that man’s oppression upon himself and, in so doing, freed the man.

Similarly, although the woman’s blood was a contaminant according to the Law, blood was also the only means prescribed by the Law for cleansing the altar and taking away sin. Jesus himself would soon offer his own blood as the ultimate detergent.10 In describing her suffering, Mark uses the metaphor of a scourge or whip (μάστιγός, vv. 29. 34); he will use the same word again in Mark 10:34 where Jesus prophesies his own literal flogging at the hands of the Romans. Jesus took on her suffering as his own and, in so doing, delivered her from it.

Finally, Jesus was not afraid to touch the girl because he knew that her death was no more significant than the sleep he proclaimed it. As one writer puts it,

The keys of death were hung on the inside of Christ’s tomb. From the outside, Christ could do many wonderful works, including raising a twelve-year-old girl and two men from the dead – only to die again (Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:14-15; John 11:43-44). If any were to be raised from the dead, never to die again, Christ would have to die for them, enter the tomb, take the keys, and unlock the door of death from the inside.11

Hallelujah!

Friends, I don’t know your situation. Perhaps you are facing an immediate crisis like Jairus; or ongoing suffering like the woman; or, perhaps scariest of all, you don’t actually know you have a problem, until you are face to face with Jesus. Whatever the case, you have a choice to make, a response to give. Will you, like the villagers, try and drive Jesus away, the way they had previously driven away the man he healed? Because the tragic irony is that the one who is strong enough to expel ‘Legion’ from the area will allow himself to be driven away… for a time. Will you, like the professional mourners at Jairus’ door, scoff at the words of Jesus? Or will you, like Jairus, like the woman, and like the man, fall at the feet of Jesus and ask for his mercy?

Come and meet Jesus… and everything will change!

Bibliography

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

English, Donald. The Message of Mark : The Mystery of Faith. Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.

Garland, David E. Mark. Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Keener, Craig S. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. Sixtieth Anniversary ed. London: HarperCollins, 2002.

Piper, John. The Passion of Jesus Christ : Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004.


Endnotes

  1. ‘Mark’s description is more fitting of a ferocious animal than of a human being; indeed, the Greek word for “subdue,” damazō, is used of taming a wild beast in James 3:7.’ James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 154-55.
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: HarperCollins, 2002), ix.
  3. Lev. 12:7; 15:19–24; 20:18.
  4. Lev. 15.19.
  5. She could once afford ‘many doctors’ (v. 26).
  6. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 160.
  7. Donald. English, The Message of Mark : The Mystery of Faith (Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 111.
  8. Sermon preached 3/3/13, http://www.wphcc.com/sermons/transformed-by-christ/#
  9. Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 148.
  10. David E. Garland, Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 229.
  11. John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ : Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2004), 100.
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The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)

by on Apr.14, 2015, under Sermon

In the time they had been with him, Jesus’ disciples had witnessed some extraordinary things. This man, Jesus, had brought a new kind of teaching, a teaching ‘with authority’ (1:27); he had cast out demons; he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a paralytic and many others who were sick. Mark records the reaction of the crowds:

This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12)

But there was also a growing opposition. More and more, Jesus was coming into conflict with the teachers of the law, the Pharisees. This all came to a head in the latter part of chapter 3. The Pharisees came together to accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. They were so persuasive that even Jesus’ own family were convinced that, at the least, Jesus must be out of his mind (3:21).

I can only imagine that this would have been troubling for Jesus’ disciples. The Pharisees were respected members of the community, who were charged with teaching God’s word. Can you imagine if all the doctors in the community came together to tell you that the medicine that had healed you was poison; or if the police told you that the man you were hanging out with was a charlatan and a fraud? You might be starting to get a picture of how conflicted the disciples would have been. On the one hand, Jesus had called them, was their teacher and friend; they knew that following him was the right thing to do. But wasn’t it the Pharisees’ job to know about religious things? They said that Jesus was not sent by God but by the devil. And if not even Jesus’ own family believed in him… ? If Jesus was really a messenger from God, a reliable teacher and prophet, then why was there such opposition?

It is in this context that Jesus teaches this parable of the sower. And it is for this reason that I believe Jesus intends for his disciples to identify Jesus (and ultimately themselves as well, as they follow in their master’s footsteps) as the sower in this parable. So this morning we will largely focus on the role of the sower under three headings: (1) the sower goes out to sow; (2) the sower sows generously, in spite of opposition; and (3) the sower sows expecting a great harvest.

The sower goes out to sow

The first point to be made about the work of the sower is found in v. 3.

A farmer went out to sow his seed. (Mark 4:3)

The NIV translators have chosen to use the word ‘farmer’ here, though this obscures the fact that the noun is closely related to the verb ‘to sow’.1 For this reason, I prefer the ESV translation of this verse, which says, ‘A sower went out to sow.’ Though a farmer has many tasks – watering, harvesting, dealing with pests etc. – right now he is a sower. His job is to sow. That is his sole focus at this time. The time for harvesting will come later, but right now he must sow the seed for otherwise there will be no harvest.

This is consistent with Jesus’ own life and ministry. According to his own interpretation, the seed to be sown is ‘the word’ – the word of God. Wherever he went, he was always proclaiming the kingdom of God.

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

He spoke with the authority of God, exercising command over sicknesses of body and spirit. He corrected the false teaching of God’s law, helping people to hear God’s word afresh. At the end of this chapter, Jesus will command the storm to still, and it will obey him.

But speaking God’s word was not Jesus’ responsibility alone. In chapter 6, Jesus will send the Twelve out to preach the word of God, to exercise authority over evil spirits and heal the sick. They will call people to repentance and will pronounce a curse on those who do not welcome them. Even now, Jesus is preparing them for that task, warning them that not everyone will respond to their message positively.

Friends, if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, you are a sower of God’s word. You have your own field to sow: your family; your work; your soccer team; your friendships; your neighbours; your club; your mothers’ group; your political party. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you are called to be a sower who goes out to sow God’s word.

This is not limited to simple gospel presentations, though these will have their place. Perhaps your friend is having problems disciplining her children; or a colleague is dealing with conflict in the workplace. Maybe your neighbour has suffered great tragedy or your team-mate has broken up with his girlfriend. God’s wisdom has relevance to all of these circumstances, so why not sow it? And sow into the lives of those who are Christians as well, for we all need it.

Are you genuinely sowing God’s word into your life, and those around you? If not, ask God to show you by his Spirit how and where to begin today. For the sower must go out to sow if there is to be a harvest. It may seem obvious, but the role of a sower is to sow. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you are a sower and you too must sow God’s word.

The sower sows generously

As I read through Jesus’ parable, I am struck by how seemingly indiscriminate the sower is in where he sows his seed. Some falls on the path, some on rocky places, some on shallow soil. Surely the sower ought to know his field, and only sow in the places likely to yield a crop?

This is a farmer who is determined to sow right to the edges of his field. Every inch of fertile land must be planted, so that the maximum possible crop is achieved. He is not concerned about some seed being lost, because he has plenty of seed. If he doesn’t plant it, it will just sit in his barn and rot; it is only by planting the seed that he will see a harvest. So he sows generously, all over his land.

I hope that we have the same generosity in the way we sow the word of God. But I see two potential barriers.

Firstly, perhaps we do not have the ‘seed’ to sow. Where does that seed come from? It is the harvest of God’s word as sown and grown in our own lives. Perhaps you identify not so much with the sower as with the path. You feel like you’ve been walked all over for so long, there is not really room in you for God or his word. And so you will leave here this morning having rejected his command – perhaps not for the first time – to ‘listen’ (v. 3) and to ‘hear’ (v. 9). Or perhaps, like the rocky places, you hear God’s word and it excites you; the shallow but warm layer of soil on top of the rock allows for rapid growth. But there is still that rocky core, that part of your heart and mind where God and his word are not welcome – your pride, your relationships, your money, your sexuality, your identity. And when God’s word addresses those things your will choose them over him. Maybe you’re quite happy for God to do what he will with you, so long as it fits into your schedule, your ambitions, your desires, your plan. And so you find you have little or no grain, because all of your time and energy is being invested in secondary things.
If this sounds like you don’t despair, because there is hope… but it does not lie with you. Soil cannot change itself. Cry out to Jesus, asking him to deal with whatever prevents you from hearing and obeying God’s word. He can do it – just look at the Apostle Paul.

Ananias balked when he was called to go and sow the word of God into Paul’s life. He said,

“I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” (Acts 9:13-14).

If ever there was soil that was rocky path, it was Paul! Yet the Lord responded with the astonishing claim that Paul was his ‘chosen instrument to carry [his] name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel’ (Acts 9:15)! And talk about about a harvest! For Paul became one of the greatest evangelists of all time, yielding a great crop of God’s word in his life and ministry.

Though the process is not always comfortable – imagine how soil feels being plowed! – if you ask him Jesus can and will make you into the kind of soil that produces a crop ‘thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times’ (v. 8) what was sown. Then, not only will you be able to enjoy your own fruitfulness, but you will have plenty of seed to sow into others around you as well.

The second barrier to sowing generously is when we try to economise on our sowing. We measure out God’s word based on who we think will respond positively and who will not. But that’s not our job. Unlike an actual farmer, our supply of seed is unlimited. Our job is to sow, and to sow generously, all the way to the edges of the field assigned to us. God by his Holy Spirit will determine the response, yielding a crop oftentimes in surprising places – such as the Apostle Paul!

So the sower sows generously, even knowing that some of the seed will be lost (such as that on the path) or will bear meagre fruit at best (such as that on the shallow, rocky soil or the seed amongst the thorns).

Are you sowing God’s word generously? Or are you hampered by your lack of seed or your attempts to economise? Ask the Lord to grant you the seed to sow and the generosity to sow it. For the sower must sow generously if the harvest is to be plentiful.

Excursus: Why different kinds of soils?

But does this really tell us why there is such opposition to Jesus’ work and words? After all, God is sovereign over all the earth; why doesn’t he make all of the soil fertile? This is an important question, and not really answered in the parable itself. Instead, Jesus addresses this concern in the preface to his explanation:
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:10–12)

This is a troubling explanation, because it seems to suggest Jesus uses parables as an instrument for preventing understanding. In other words, he speaks in parables to ensure that some do not understand his message, and so do not repent and seek forgiveness. Can this be right?

To understand, we must consider the original context for the words that Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6. There, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord God seated on his throne. Confronted with absolute holiness, he becomes painfully aware of both his own sins and those of his nation (Isa. 6:5). God graciously deals with Isaiah’s sinfulness (Isa. 6:6-7), but that still leaves a sinful nation to deal with, and Isaiah is to be instrumental in accomplishing God’s purpose in this regard, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

We don’t know what Isaiah expected, but surely it was not what follows:

He said, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9–10)

Isaiah, by his prophetic ministry, was to bring about a hardness of heart in the people of Judah. Can you imagine having this message preached at your commissioning? ‘Go, and preach the word; your preaching will make them hard-hearted, deaf and blind, so that they will neither repent nor be saved.’ That is a hard calling in anyone’s book.

Why such a harsh message? The first five chapters of Isaiah leading up to this passage detail the repeated failings of God’s people. Though they have every reason to love and trust God, they have rebelled, turned their backs on him and forgotten him.2 Their worship of God has descended into meaningless ritual3 instead of the justice and righteousness that God requires.4 They ought to be the unique people of God, a light to the world showing how God ought to be worshiped;5 but instead they are no different from the nations around them.6 God, through Isaiah (and many other prophets) has called them to repentance but they have refused. And so, he enters into judgment.

Part of this judgment is that Judah shall become deaf and blind to God’s word. But why does God preclude the possibility of repentance? Why must Isaiah,

Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:10)

Doesn’t God want them to repent?

I don’t claim to have a comprehensive answer to this question. But I do think we glimpse his purpose when we remember that the judgments pronounced by Isaiah (and other prophets) culminate in the exile. And the exile was the ultimate demonstration that ‘the system’ was not working – nor would it ever. Let me explain.

A little over six years ago, Katrie and I were eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first child. We wanted a natural delivery, because we had been taught that anything else was second best. Except there was a problem: the baby had not turned around, and was in a breech position. Apparently this complicates natural birth, so we were strongly advised to consider delivery by Caesarean section. Our obstetrician explained that it was OK to wait for a time and see if the baby turned, but only for a time. And so we waited the full time allotted, before reluctantly proceeding with the Caesarean. We were glad we did! Because as the doctor delivered Aedan to us, he showed us that the umbilical cord had become wrapped around his neck – three and a half times! Our plan was never going to work. And, though it might have seemed unfair for the obstetrician to impose a time limit, in the providence of God that was exactly what needed to happen.

I believe God was doing something similar with Judah. The covenants under which Judah lived – the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant – had enabled a long cycle of disobedience, judgment, repentance and disobedience again. Those covenants by themselves were not sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes because they didn’t address his people’s sinfulness. That plan was never going to work, and Judah needed to see it. A new people was required, descended not from sinful Abraham but from the sinless son of God. A new law was required, written not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of men and women.7 A new king was required, one not only after God’s own heart8 but the very expression of his heart.9 The Lord hardened Judah’s heart in order to accomplish his greater purpose and make way for what Jeremiah would call a ‘new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31).

And that purpose is also evident in Mark’s gospel. For the growing opposition to Jesus would culminate, not in another exile, but in the crucifixion of the Son of God. The new covenant was proclaimed in the blood of Jesus, poured out for us;10 but that would not have happened if not for the hardness of heart precipitated by Jesus’ teaching. As Jesus taught that he had authority to forgive sins, some rejoiced but others found it intolerable blasphemy.11 As he healed, particularly on the Sabbath, the crowds saw God’s power at work but the Pharisees saw a threat to their authority and plotted to kill him.12 So even though he knew that sowing the word of God would produce hardness of heart in some, he also knew that even that hardness of heart would ultimately serve God’s purpose and plan.

We, too, must sow the word of God in spite of opposition. It is a hard thing to know that speaking God’s word may be the cause of hardening and judgment in our family, our friends, our colleagues. Yet it may also be the means by which God brings them to repentance and faith, and it is that hope that helps us to go out and sow day after day. Which brings us to our final point.

The sower sows in hope of a great harvest

After receiving his commission, Isaiah is understandably distressed:

Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” (Isaiah 6:11)

We can imagine Isaiah’s thinking: ‘Maybe it is just temporary. One year? Five years? Twenty? How long before you redeem your people, O Lord? How long before you allow them to repent and be healed? How long must I proclaim this curse upon my nation?’

The Lord’s answer is not encouraging:

And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isaiah 6:11–13)

The judgment of God on Judah was to be thorough. Even if ninety percent of the land were wiped out, that is still not enough! But, as so often when God pronounces judgment, there is also hope. For even though Israel is like a tree that has been cut down, yet there will still be a ‘holy seed’ that will be a ‘stump’ that contains the possibility of regrowth. The desolation and destruction will not be complete.

In Jesus’ parable, however, there is even more cause to be hopeful; he speaks of a crop thirty, sixty and even a hundred times what was sown. While Jesus’ ministry parallels Isaiah’s in many ways, in this he is quite different. Isaiah saw only the possibility of regrowth long after the judgment he proclaimed; Jesus saw a great harvest that would grow from his preaching of God’s word. The exile had done its job of preparing the soil, and now it was ready for planting.

We ought to have the same expectation as we sow the word of God into the lives of those around us – and indeed in our own life! Jesus says elsewhere,

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. (Luke 10:2)

It is not the harvest that is in doubt; it is the workers! So in the very next verse he appoints seventy-two of his disciples and says, ‘Go!’ (Luke 10:3). Though the image has changed from sowing to harvesting, the need for workers is constant.

The disciples were doubting Jesus and his ministry because of the opposition that it aroused. They had their eyes on the seed that was lost, but failed to appreciate the tremendous harvest that was in front of them. Friends, let’s not make the same mistake. Don’t doubt because of opposition, but believe in the great harvest… and sow!


Endnotes

  1. ἐξῆλθεν ὁ σπείρων σπεῖραι. cf. the more general γεωργός in Matt. 21:33 || Luke 20:9.
  2. Isa. 1:2-4.
  3. Isa. 1:11-15.
  4. Isa. 1:16-17.
  5. Isa. 2:3-6.
  6. Isa. 2:6-8.
  7. Jer. 31:33.
  8. 1 Sam. 13:14.
  9. John 1:1-18.
  10. Luke 22:20.
  11. Mark 2:6.
  12. Mark 3:6.
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Communicating Christ: The Parable of the Sower

by on Jan.20, 2013, under Sermon

Reading: Mark 4:1-20.

We can learn much about sharing our faith from this passage, both from the method Jesus used and also from the content of this parable itself.

The scene is clear. Jesus is out by a lake, and people come out from the surrounding countryside to hear him teach. Perhaps the first thing we can learn from Jesus’ method in this passage is that he didn’t shy away when the opportunity arose to share the gospel. Even when seeking solitude after hearing of the death of his cousin, Jesus is still willing to meet with the crowds who come out to him (Matt 14:13-14). We are told that he had ‘compassion’ upon them, though the Greek word used has to do with the innards and suggests a stronger translation; we might say ‘gut-wrenching’ or ‘heart-rending’ sympathy.

Chances are that we are not followed around by crowds desperate to hear our teaching, as Jesus was. Yet we need to make sure that we do not lose or squander opportunities to share the Gospel. You may be tired, hungry, mourning, busy, in a bad mood etc. But do you have the deep-seated compassion for the lost that Jesus did and does? If so, no matter what your personal circumstances, don’t pass up an opportunity to share the Gospel because you are not feeling up to it, or because it is inconvenient.

Similarly, don’t allow external circumstances to hinder you. Jesus got into a boat and pulled out a little way from the shore so that more people could see him and hear him. Israeli scientists have verified that the location popularly identified with this account, the so-called ‘Bay of Parables’, can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people all at once.1 Once again, we might not ever have need or opportunity to share our faith with thousands of people all at once. But perhaps we can arrange to meet with our friends at a quiet cafe or restaurant instead of a noisy pub or club. Maybe we turn the TV off, or close up our laptop, when engaging in conversation. Consider whether you really need to check the text that just came in on your phone, or if now is actually the best time to be facebooking. What message are you sending about the importance (or otherwise) of the Gospel? Maybe you can give these things a miss for the sake of the Gospel.

Then again, perhaps we do have opportunities to ‘speak’ to hundreds and even thousands at once. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter is an obvious example of how this might happen. Yet, sadly, these media often encourage regular updates with little or no thought, condensed to ‘sound bites’ of 140 characters or less, and so on. Keeping our message short is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be because we have taken the time to distil our message in to its most concise and clearest form, not because that’s all the thinking we have done, and we can’t be bothered doing more. There was a time when putting pen to paper and publishing one’s thoughts was a time-consuming operation, usually involving an editor or publisher collaborating with an author to ensure that what was to be published was appropriate to its audience and purpose; those days are gone. Yet we, as Christians, ought still to ensure that we are thoughtful and careful in what we say and do, for we are ambassadors of Christ.
As Christians, let’s make sure that if we are saying anything, that it is something of substance, something worth saying. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we ought to ensure that our words and thoughts flow from spending time with God, reading and praying through his word. You will only have something worth saying if you are first listening to God.

Let us, like Jesus, give careful attention to both the form and the content of our message.

One of the most challenging aspects of sharing the Christian faith in Australia in the 21st century is apathy. We live in a culture that encourages what it calls ‘tolerance’, and whose catch-cry might well be ‘Let’s agree to disagree.’ Friends and family will often listen in a politely bemused silence as we explain how encountering Jesus has changed our life, how the Gospel means that we need no longer be a slave to sin but can instead come into relationship with God, how God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself… and at the end of it all, their response is limited to, ‘I’m glad that works for you, but what has it got to do with me?’

When we read the pages of the New Testament, however, we quickly realise that this was not a problem Jesus faced. Or, rather, it was a problem that Jesus was a master at overcoming. Already in the 3 chapters of Mark’s Gospel that precede tonight’s passage, responses to Jesus’ message have covered the entire spectrum from eager acceptance, people leaving all they have to follow Jesus, all the way through to accusations of Jesus being demon possessed and a law-breaker. What we don’t read is, ‘They smiled politely, then went about their business’ or, ‘That’s nice’. Jesus continually provoked responses, both positive and negative.
In part, this is a reflection of a change in our society: 21st century Australia is very different to 1st century Judea. But I think it has at least as much to do with the way Jesus went about proclaiming his message. And one of the most distinctive and effective characteristics of his teaching is the way Jesus used parables.

The Greek word παραβολή is made up of two words that mean ‘alongside’ and ‘throw’.2 The way words are constructed does not always have a bearing on meaning (think of ‘pineapple’ which is neither an apple, nor grows on pines). But in this case it gives us a pretty good approximation, for a parable is where we ‘throw’ something well-known alongside something that is not well-known, with the aim showing how they are the same. Students of English will know that we speak of such things as similes, metaphors, analogies and so on; all of these have their part to play in parables. But parables also contain something more. Once a parable is correctly understood, it demands a response from the hearer. There is generally one character or element of each parable with which Jesus wants his listeners to identify.

For example, when Jesus speaks the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), he ends by asking:

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36–37)

Whilst there are no hard and fast rules, it is often the last character mentioned who we are meant to identify with. This helps us to understand, for example, why Jesus adds details about the older son to the story of the Lost Son in Luke 15:28-32. At the start of the chapter, we read:

Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1–2)

So Jesus is actually addressing two groups of people: the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to him; and the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus tells the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) land the parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32). At the end of the first two parables, the leading character invites friends and neighbours to ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’ (Luke 15:6), and again ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin’ (Luke 15:9). The desired response, from both sinners and the self-proclaimed righteous is rejoicing.

But in the third parable, Jesus goes further. The party to celebrate the return of the younger son is started, and all have been invited to rejoice, but the older son rejects that invitation. Even though he is a member of the family, who should have been overjoyed at the return of his brother, he is resentful and rebellious. He refuses to come in, even though the father appeals to him in person. This third parable is as much and perhaps more about the older son as it is about the younger, for truly it was the older son who was ‘lost’ in the end. The intended audience is those Pharisees and teachers of the law who complained that Jesus was welcoming and eating with ‘sinners’. Once they have understood that they are represented by the older son, a response is required: will they continue to refuse their father’s appeals to come in and rejoice (an action very nearly as disgraceful as the actions of the younger son in asking for his inheritance before his father was dead); or will they obey their father?

When we share our faith, when we tell the Gospel, we need to be clear that we are presenting people with a choice between two alternatives. On the one hand, they can act in obedience to God’s will, and rejoice over the things God rejoices over and weep about the things God weeps about. Or they can set themselves against God, pretending sovereignty over their own life and destiny, a path which ultimately leads to destruction. There is no fence on which to sit when it comes to the Gospel; Jesus said, ‘He who is not with me is against me’ (Matt 12:30; Luke 11:23). If we have not clearly shown the required response, by our words and actions, we have not really shared the Gospel.

The question arises: if parables are such an effective method of teaching the Gospel, should we use parables when we share our faith? A large part of the reason parables are effective is because they connect with things that are common in peoples’ daily lives. Even today, Jesus’ parables have great power because even though we do not witness crop farming or fishing and so on as a daily occurrence, most of us have, at some time, planted a seed, or caught a fish. So, I encourage you to know and use Jesus’ parables.

But sometimes, parables that spring from your common experience with the person you are sharing your faith with can be an effective tool for witness. I encourage you to keep your eyes open, and consider how current events, movies, books and so on teach you about the Gospel. Did you go and see The Hobbit together? Take some time to reflect on what it meant for Bilbo to be specially ‘chosen and selected’ to do a job that he had no qualifications or experience for; what mission has God picked you out for? Bilbo set out on a journey, leaving behind the comforts of home, ‘without [even] a pocket-handkerchief'; what comforts will you have to leave behind on your Christian journey? Maybe you went to an art gallery together, and noticed that the masterpieces had frames that complemented them, perhaps wrought with great skill yet not themselves the focal point; is your life a frame that points to the great masterpiece of the Gospel?

I’m not saying you should spend your entire life trying to come up with different ways of explaining and illustrating the Gospel at the expense of enjoying them. But do keep your eyes open and set aside some time to think and pray about what you observe and how it relates to your Christian walk and faith. Once again, time for thought and prayer is important here, for parables made up on the spot are rarely effective; properly thought and prayed through, however, they can be very powerful indeed.
Let us turn now to the content of Jesus’ parable found in Mark 4. I chose to look first at the parables about the Good Samaritan and the Lost Son, because they are well-known and generally well understood. But things were not always clear-cut with Jesus’ parables, and I think that the parable that he tells in Mark 4 illustrates this well. He speaks of a farmer sowing seed. Depending on the nature of the soil in which the seed falls, there are different outcomes: some soils result in no crop, some in a crop that grows quickly but does not last until the harvest, and other soils result in a good crop.

This is all well and good, but it is difficult to see what the original audience would have made of it, lacking the explanation Jesus gives in the latter part of the passage. Certainly they would have understood the imagery; some scholars suggest that Jesus’ teaching on this topic may even have been prompted by seeing a farmer in a nearby field that day! But what was the point? What response was being called for from them? Who or what were they supposed to identify with in the story? The farmer? The seed? One of the soils?

Fortunately we don’t have to guess what Jesus meant in this instance, for Jesus himself explains it to his disciples. The seed is the word, and the soils represent different kinds of people. Some people either reject the Gospel or fall away from it from lack of grounding in the faith or being starved out by the cares of the world. But others accept that word and grow up healthy and strong, producing a crop up to a hundred times what was sown.

But we have seen that parables, properly understood, demand a response; what response is Jesus calling for in this instance? Like with the Good Samaritan and the Lost (elder) Son, I believe that the emphasis is on the last item mentioned, the soil that bore fruit that multiplied the original seed ‘thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times’. Most farmers in days before genetically modified crops, pesticides and so on, would have considered a thirtyfold increase on what was sown to be a good crop, for the average yield was about tenfold throughout most of Palestine.3 Sixtyfold would have been a very good crop, whilst a hundredfold increase would only have been a possibility in the most fertile area in the region, the Jordan Valley, and rare even there. The response required by this parable, then, is that those who accept the word (the ‘good’ soil) should allow it to grow in them and produce fruit. And, whilst I wouldn’t want to push the imagery too far, it is at least worth remembering that crop produced is of the same kind as the word originally sown; crop farmers save some of this year’s crop as seed for next year’s harvest. Thus, if the seed is the word of God, so too should be the crop that is harvested.

Is this the case in your life? Have you accepted the word of God? If so, is it growing in you? When God harvests the crop that is your life, is it his own word that he finds growing there? Can he use you to sow into other soils, other lives, other people? Take some time this week to have a look at your life, and seriously ask yourself whether it is the Gospel that flourishes there.

So, in summary, let me encourage you to seize every opportunity to share the Gospel. Spend plenty of time with God, reading his word and praying, otherwise you will not have anything worthwhile to say. Be clear that there is no fence to sit on when it comes to the Gospel. Know and use Jesus’ parables, and keep your eyes open for modern-day parables, as these can be an effective way of inviting response. And examine your own life to see if the seed planted there – the word of God! – is bearing fruit of the same kind that can be sown into the lives of others.

I want to close with one final encouragement. In his explanation, Jesus identifies the seed, the soils, the thorns and so on; but he never identifies the farmer. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt who is intended, for it is Jesus himself who spreads the word of God. As you share your faith with those around you, remember that it is God who plants the word in peoples’ hearts. Don’t be disheartened if there is a negative response; Jesus himself encountered criticism, jealousy, accusations of demon-possession and, ultimately, died at the hands of those who rejected his words, those of the stony soil. Don’t be surprised or discouraged when friends who have professed themselves Christians walk away from Christ, because of hard times or the lures of the world; though incredibly sad, Jesus told us that these things will happen. Instead, remember that where the sower sows his seed – where God himself plants the Gospel – there will ultimately be a bumper crop.

The sower knows his work!

Bibliography

Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. Accordance electronic ed, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.

Keener, Craig S. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.


Endnotes

  1. James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Accordance electronic ed., Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 126.
  2. Ibid., 127.
  3. Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 144.
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The double healing of a blind man (Mark 8:22-26)

by on Aug.08, 2010, under Sermon

Let me tell you about the second scariest day of my life. When I was 17, and newly arrived in Sydney to attend university, I awoke one morning to find that I could not open my eyes because any light brought me intense pain. The day before one eye had been very bloodshot, and I had gone to hospital to get treatment, but was sent home with some ointment, an eyepatch and the doctor’s advice that they couldn’t see a problem. But there was no ignoring it this time – I am reliably informed by a (female) optometrist that this kind of pain is of a comparable level with childbirth, except entirely concentrated in one eye!

I called my Dad, a GP, who drove 2 hours to reach me and take me to Sydney Eye Hospital. At this point I began to wonder whether the cure might not be worse than the problem. On the long list of things I hope never to hear again, the phrase, “Please hold still whilst I take a ‘sample’ from your eye with my spatula,” rates very close to the top! I am proud to say that I held rock steady whilst this went on (and quite possibly for some minutes afterwards) though I did plenty of trembling later.

Why was I so afraid? I think perhaps it was because since before I can remember I have been so dependent upon my eyes for everything I do. Whilst my eyesight is far from perfect, with a bit of assistance it suffices for most things that I would ever want to do. This dependence was brought home to me in the week that followed this particular incident, since both my eyes were kept completely dilated and I was not able to focus upon anything and so I couldn’t read, couldn’t see the friends who came to visit or do much of anything else that I wanted to do… I was reduced to listening(!) to television, and it doesn’t get much worse than that.

Imagine, then, the tragedy of a man born with sight that he later loses, such as Mark records for us. Whilst I was at risk of losing sight in one eye, this man had lost sight in both eyes. (We deduce that he had, at some time, had sight by the fact that he can recognise trees and people when he does see them.) This happened in a society lacking the blessings of guide dogs, braille, text-to-speech computers and so on – meaning that he thus became completely dependent upon others for everything.

Bring your friends to Jesus… and let them bring you!

We become aware of this dependence straight away: ‘some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him’ (v. 22). This man had friends who had obviously heard of Jesus, and the wonderful things he had done. This was in Bethsaida, Peter’s hometown,1 so perhaps they had even met Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus had healed from a fever,2 or one of the many others that Jesus had previously healed there.3 In doing so, they acted in faith, believing that Jesus could heal their friend.

Do you bring your friends to Jesus? If you are a Christian, the best and most important thing you can do for your friends is to bring them to Jesus, making requests on their behalf if need be. I have a good friend who is overseas at the moment, and undergoing an intensely difficult period in his life. Throughout this, I have noticed something disturbing in myself: a frustration that, since he is on the other side of the world, ‘all’ I can do is pray for him, as though that weren’t sufficient. Yet this is the first and most important thing I can do. Were he here, I might run around doing other things, so-called ‘practical’ things, but if I do so at the expense of bringing him to Jesus in prayer then I would be doing him no favour at all.
There is no need that your friend be a Christian for you to bring them to Jesus. There is no indication in this account that the blind man asked to be brought to Jesus, and it is the friends who do the asking. In fact, it is your non-Christian friends who most need the healing that only Jesus can bring! Don’t be timid – these friends ‘begged’ Jesus to heal their friend. Here’s how the conversation didn’t go: “Um, Jesus, if you’re not too busy, could you please, if you don’t mind, give our friend back his sight, or at least some of it.” And it didn’t go like this either: “Oh Lord, who art the Great Physician and healer of all the earth, we humbly beseech the that thou shouldst turn thy healing hand to the restoration of our friend’s ocular faculties…” No, the request was at once both simple and profound: please heal our friend.

Equally important, though, do you have friends who will bring you to Jesus? One of my earliest experiences of the power of this was when I was 10. I had just come to Christ, as part of a Christian holiday camp. About a week later, I was picked up early from vacation care and told that we had to go to Sydney because I had been diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumour. Whilst what followed should have been extremely traumatic for a 10-year-old, amongst my most precious memories from that period is the feeling of wonder I had at hearing that my church was holding special gatherings to pray for me and my family, and that others were praying for me throughout Australia (and a few in New Zealand). This brought with it a sense of great peace: I had friends – some of whom I had never met, yet friends nonetheless – who loved me enough to bring me to Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, bring your friends and family to Jesus as your first and highest priority – and allow them to do the same for you. The Lord may well have a plan for actioning your prayer that involves you acting, but he is waiting for you to first bring it to him before he reveals what that is. On the other hand, his plan may not involve you at all, as was the case with these friends. Their only contribution was to bring their friend to Jesus. Pray first, then act if necessary – but trust Jesus for the how.

Trust Jesus for the how

What do I mean by ‘trust Jesus for the how’? Consider the specific request these friends made: ‘some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him’ (8:22). They had probably heard stories of people being healed with a touch, and wanted the same for their friend. But when the touch comes, it is not at first a healing touch: ‘He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village’ (8:23).

There may have been a number of reasons for leading the man outside the village. Mark consistently shows Jesus avoiding misguided veneration from crowds.4 His mission was to preach the kingdom of God, and healing the sick was secondary to that; and public healings sometimes made it impossible to preach.5 This is confirmed at the end of this story where ‘Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t go into the village.”‘ (8:26)
In this case, however, I believe the reason is a little deeper. Jesus touches the man in order to enter into the man’s blind world in a personal way, for where sight is absent sound and touch become more important. He leads the man by the hand in order to engender trust, for a blind man must implicitly trust the one leading him. Up until this point, the blind man has been entirely passive; Jesus is encouraging him to engage his faith and trust in Jesus.6 To do this, he must leave the crowds (some of whom, no doubt, hoped themselves to be healed), and so we get a little bit of an insight into Jesus, the Good Shepherd who is willing to leave the 99 sheep for the sake of the 1.7

Then Jesus spits on the man. This is, to our minds, strange at best and disgusting and degrading at worst. In truth, it wouldn’t have been much less strange in that culture,8 although this is the second time in Mark’s gospel where Jesus employs saliva in a healing.9 This is almost certainly not what the blind man or his friends had expected when they approached Jesus for healing. They could have taken offence as Naaman did when Elisha told him to bathe in the Jordan to cure his leprosy.10 But to do so would have been to miss out on the blessing that Jesus had in store for this man.

We don’t get to dictate terms to God. To do so is a form of idolatry, since we make an idol of whatever it is that we want, and we ask God to serve that idol. Instead, we need to bring our needs to God and leave it up to him to decide how to meet those needs. This means that sometimes the results will be very different to what we might have hoped for.

One of the great joys of being a Dad is that I have a legitimate excuse for reading kids’ books. Many are trivial or mundane, as might be expected, but every now and then you come across one that is beautiful and thought-provoking in its very simplicity. Such a book is Claudia the Caterpillar.11 Claudia the Caterpillar looked out at the butterflies and thought, ‘That’s the life for me – I was born to fly.’ After two failed attempts at flying, she brings her problem to God who leads her to the top of the tall tree she had been trying to fly from, and instructs her to climb into the chrysalis he has prepared. Claudia, dismayed, says to God, ‘If you make me go in there I’ll die.’ She had asked God for wings to fly, and the answer was a closer confinement than she currently experienced. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was the necessary first step to get there. God knew what was needed, and Claudia had to trust him.

This lesson was brought home to me a couple of years ago. A dear friend of mine had been battling against cancer for some years. One particular day, many of us gathered to pray on her behalf – to bring her to Jesus for healing just as the friends in this story did. Late that night I was reading the scriptures prescribed for that day in my reading plan, which included James 5. I read these words: ‘Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up’ (James 5:14–15). Once again I felt compelled to pray that prayer on behalf of my prayer and did so. After some time, I was overwhelmed by a sense of peace like I have rarely felt before or since; I went to bed rejoicing, convinced that she had been completely healed. The next morning I found out that she had indeed been healed… but not at all in the way I had hoped and prayed for. Instead, the Lord had called her home.

Was the Lord playing some kind of cruel joke on me? Of course he was not, any more than he was taunting Claudia the caterpillar by confining her in a cocoon when all she wanted was freedom to fly, or being callous towards Naaman the leper by sending him to wash in the Jordan, or offending the blind man by healing him with saliva. God doesn’t owe us any explanations for how and why he does what he does; instead we owe him our faith and trust because he is a God who cares for us and works all things for his glory and our good.12

Brothers and sisters, bring your friends to Jesus (and let them bring you too!), but trust Jesus for the how. And when you do, watch closely, because lives will be transformed.

Watch as lives are transformed

It is at this point that the story gets a little bit strange. Because, having spit and laid hands on the blind man, Jesus asks him what he sees and it becomes clear that the healing is only partial. The man can see, but people look like trees. Has something gone wrong?
The unusual nature of this healing has led many commentators to believe that Jesus is here acting out a parable. If true, this would be in the tradition of many of the prophets who God called to perform specific actions as a means of prophecy. For example, God told Hosea to marry a prostitute13 and Ezekiel to lie on his left side for 390 days followed by 40 days on his right side in order to make a point.14 In this case, the likely target is the disciples, who would likely have been present at the healing, suggesting that they were spiritually blind, have now been given some measure of sight, but will require further intervention from Jesus before they see everything clearly. There is some justification for this as Jesus has just rebuked the disciples for their lack of understanding,15 and this healing and the healing of blind Bartimaeus form a matched pair framing the journey of Jesus and the disciples to Jerusalem during which he seems to focus on teaching them. However, it is not clear what event the completion of the healing is supposed to refer to: is it Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah in the next section? Christ’s death? Resurrection? Second coming? And so I don’t really think that this interpretation really helps us to understand this healing much better than if we take its plain meaning.

The truth is, I don’t know exactly why this healing took place in two parts. As I said earlier, God doesn’t owe us any explanations for what he does; instead we owe him our faith and trust. What is important to note, however, is Jesus’ patience. He could have sent the man away with his imperfect vision; after all, he is a good deal better off than when he came to Jesus. But Jesus persists, with the result that the man ends up with perfect vision. Mark is at pains to emphasise how well he saw: ‘Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly’ (8:25).
This healing occurred in two stages – and we’re all agreed that it was a miracle. The man couldn’t see, and then he could. But would it still have been a miracle if it took three stages? Or four? What about if it took a day? Or a week? Or a month? The man was blind, right… no matter how long it takes, the result is what counts here! This is an encouragement for us, because whilst some of us may have experienced miraculous healing, chances are most of us will be healed in more ‘ordinary’ fashion… yet does that make it any less miraculous when we are healed? Some of us may be converted to faith in an instant, but most of us awaken to faith gradually… yet does that make it any less miraculous?
Contact with Jesus results in more than just minor course corrections; he does not settle for half-results. His goal is complete transformation. Claudia the Caterpillar asked for her current life to be augmented; God responded by transforming her very nature. This series is about Jesus the life-changer, and we will see the same pattern over and again. Where there is blindness, he brings sight, perfect sight. Where there is darkness, he gives light, light that no darkness can overcome. Where there is death he brings life, and life to the full, life that lasts forever. When he calls, people follow; when he speaks, people are changed; when he touches, nothing can remain the same. He does it in his own time and his own way, but he does it!
Friends, bring your friends to Jesus (and let them bring you too!), trust him for the how, and watch closely as lives are transformed.

Bibliography

Keener, Craig S. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974.
McDonough, Andrew. Claudia the Caterpillar, Lost Sheep Series 2. Unley, S.Aust.: Lost Sheep Resources, 2006.


Endnotes

  1. John 1:44.
  2. Mark 1:29-31.
  3. Mark 1:32-34.
  4. e.g. 1:35-39, 45; 3:7-9; 6:45.
  5. e.g. 1:45.
  6. William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark; the English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids,: Eerdmans, 1974), 285.
  7. Matt 18:12-13.
  8. Craig S. Keener, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 156.
  9. cf. 7:32-37.
  10. 2 Kings 5:11.
  11. Andrew McDonough, Claudia the Caterpillar, Lost Sheep Series 2 (Unley, S.Aust.: Lost Sheep Resources, 2006).
  12. Rom 8:28.
  13. Hos 1.
  14. Ezek 4.
  15. Mark 8:21.
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