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07-23 - I AM

07-23 - I AM

          My wife and I were on vacation for the past two weeks. We had originally thought we would go away for a few days – probably to Lancaster, PA.  But we decided to change our plans and stay close to home when it appeared that our daughter-in-law might be delivering her third son, our fifth grandchild, a bit earlier than his expected date of July 26.  Sure enough, on July 4th, we received the call that our daughter-in-law was in labor.  The next morning, our grandson, Wyatt Nicolo, was born.

          Being closer to home for those two weeks gave my wife and me an opportunity to attend a couple of local Baptist churches for Sunday services.  We had a chance to reconnect with some folks that we do not get to see very often.  At one of the churches, the pastor commented to the congregation that it was wonderful that Becky and I were here in church on a Sunday even though they were on vacation.  I thought for a moment, “What does being on vacation have to do with whether you are in church on Sunday?  Doesn’t everyone go to church on Sunday when they are on vacation?” But more significantly, the pastor’s observation left me wondering afresh what is our purpose, our goal, our desire, for attending church?  The writer of Hebrews said to this point, “23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:23-25). 

So, part of the reason for attending church on Sunday is to spur one another on by doing deeds that are loving and good, and to encourage one another in the faith.  Now it is true that each one of us needs encouragement and that each one of us is the source of encouragement for one another. Every person here has, is, or will fight some battle in life.  That battle may be waged as a physical attack against the body by some disease.  That battle may be waged as an emotional battle with anxiousness or conflict.  Or that battle may be waged against us as a spiritual battle that leaves us shaken with doubt or uncertainty about our purpose and destiny.  And Many people, maybe even most people, will wage those battles alone.  Too many people fight their worst battles alone.  Alone is such a depleting word and place to be.  As the author of Hebrews points out, Church, as conceived by Christ, was to break that aloneness and instead, give to every person waging a physical, emotional, or spiritual battle the collective resources of the church, the body of Christ, as a source of encouragement and strength.  The idea is simple.  If you are alone in a battle, come to church, and gather strength your brothers and sisters for whatever lies ahead.  If you are not presently engaged in battle, come to church, so that your strength measured by your time, talents, treasure, and tears can be given to another from the church who is engaged in battle that they would otherwise have to fight alone.  We, therefore, come to church that we may as a unit “spurring one another on toward love and good deeds…encouraging one another—all the more.”  If you are in a battle today, please make sure your church knows it so that we can help.  If you are not in a battle, please make sure your church knows so that you can help bless others.

The second reason to come together on Sunday the writer of Hebrews said is “to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).  We come to church to be part of that place on this earth where consistently the hope of God stirs us up such that we feel more alive when we leave church than when we came in through the door.  Church was created by Christ to refresh and animate the hope that we have in God through Jesus Christ who is faithful.  We need to have our appetite for God stirred up such that our desire for God is more than our desire for anything or anyone else this world.  We cannot get spiritually stirred up at home alone, or on the golf course, or fishing, or sleeping in, or planting flowers, or you can fill in the blank. We get the opportunity to be so stirred up and moved towards God in church.

And how then do we get stirred up for God?  Sometimes we are moved by the music, other times, perhaps by a sermon, but mostly we get stirred up when we in worship open ourselves up enough to realize that God, not for his own benefit, but for our benefit, desires that we would have a love relationship with him.  And who is this God?  He is the God of all creation.  He is the God who said his name is “I AM,” אֶֽהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶֽהְיֶה, haw-yaw ash-er haw-yaw, “I AM that I AM.”  This is how the people of the Old Testament understood God, “I AM.”  I am he who always existed and will exist.  I am he who is truth.  I am your shepherd, your giver of law.  I am your savior and your judge.  I am unchangeable and forever faithful.  I AM stirred up the people of Israel as he sought to make them the light into the world.

Then I AM, God, decided the time was right to be present among the people, all the people, to bring them into a final personal relationship with him.  And so, I AM, came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ and at birth was heralded as Emmanuel, God with us.

But this “God with us,” did not come in some grand manner with heavenly trumpets and flaming skies. Instead, this “God with us,” the great “I AM” was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpenter shop or as a laborer until he was about 30 years old.  And then for 3 years he walked and preached, preached and walked the surrounds of that obscure land called Galilee, Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem. He never wrote a book.  Never held an office.  Never owned a home.

What this I AM did was he healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, healed the lame, and controlled the forces of nature.  The spiritual leaders of Israel, instead of being stirred up and animated by the presence of I AM, ridiculed and fought him at every turn.  How sad.  The friends that I AM surrounded himself with never seemed to fully understand who he was. When things got dangerous to be around this I AM, his friends ran away.  The great I AM was arrested, bound with simple rope.  He allowed himself to be spat upon, flogged, ridiculed, nailed to a cross, and killed.   This I AM then showed who he was by raising Jesus from the dead and into resurrected life. This God who held nothing back is the God who desires to stir you and to stir me up to come into a relationship with him and to see the hope and promise in life with him.  This is the God, this is the I AM, who wants you to follow him out of the darkness of evil that he experienced and into the light he created.

When this I AM, the person of Jesus Christ, was here on earth, no one spoke like him.  His words offered his audience fulfillment of the promises made in the Scriptures and reassurance that He was God with them.

This Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).  Every person ever born or to be born shares the same human condition and is we are of both the body and spirit.  In our body, we will physically hunger, and we will physically thirst causing us to seek food and water repeatedly and yet never be completely satisfied.  That is the nature of physical hunger and thirst. But deeper than that every person ever born or to be born hungers and thirsts spiritually for hope, for peace, for significance, for dignity.  Jesus said he is the “I AM” who meets that spiritual hunger and thirst but does so once and for all time.  For as long as we remain in the presence of Jesus, we will have a life of significance, dignity, peace, and hope no matter what may be going on in the body.  Jesus’ words stirred up people to see that God would meet their most basic needs in life.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).  God, I AM, saw that the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over all.  “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3-4).  Without light there is no life.  Without life there is no goodness.  This is our human condition.  And yet spiritually, we see light as a symbolic of God bringing wisdom and clarity to our very purpose for existence.  What is our purpose?  It is to have life in abundance.  Jesus stood before his audience and stirred people up that so long as they were in Him, they would have light and thus life with purpose, wisdom, and clarity.  We want that desperately.

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9a).  Every human seeks a place of sanctuary, safety, and relief for their body, whether that is in a mansion or cardboard box.  There is always an opening to that place of safety, whether that is a door or a flap.  Spiritually, every human being seeks safety for their inner being, for their spirit. Jesus stood before his audience and said, “I AM that gate and all who pass through me exit the world, the darkness, exit the turmoil of worldliness and enter the realm of God, light, peace, safety, yes, salvation for the soul.”  Jesus’ words stirred up the people that there was a clear doorway through which they could be saved.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11).  The Shepherd is symbolic of God.  It is the shepherd to which David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He (The Shepherd-The Lord) makes me lie down in green pastures, he (the Shepherd) leads me beside quiet waters, he (the shepherd) refreshes my soul.  He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you (the Shepherd-the Lord) are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  You (My Shepherd) prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord (My Shepherd) forever” (Psalm 23).  Beautiful words of promise that God would be the provision for the good times and he would be the force to sustain those who follow him in their difficulties.  Jesus stood before his audience as the Shepherd and his words stirred up the people knowing that through Jesus there would be provision now through eternity.

          Jesus said to those who grieve the loss of a loved one, ““I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).  Jesus’ tender words were first spoken to his friend, Martha, at the death of Martha’s brother, Lazarus.  Jesus’ words did not caused people weeping in the pain of death stop grieving but his words did allow them to grieve with hope.  Jesus’ words caused that hope in the grieving to be stirred up because Jesus promised that those who believed in him would be extended life even though they died.  Death, the enemy that all humans fear, was defeated before the I AM, Jesus the Christ.

          Jesus said, “5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  Jesus promised a fruitful life if people would just remain with him.  For apart from Jesus, they would never have life, light, salvation, provision, resurrection, or significance.  Jesus’ words stirred up the imagination of those who heard him speak and the desire to be forever covered by the grace of God.

          Finally, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  What a wonderful expression of assurance.  Jesus was making it clear that of all the possible ways that people saw or imagined a pathway to God, a pathway we all desire, Jesus said there is but one true way.  Jesus, the I AM, Emmanuel, God with Us, said, “If you want God and all that means, then follow God, who came in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no other way to me except through me.”  The people’s hearts were stirred up, relieved, because they no longer had to guess how to be with God.  Instead, they had to believe and follow Jesus. 

          What do we do with Jesus saying over an again, “I AM.”  Some complain and ask, “Why didn’t Jesus just say, “Look.  I AM God, follow me.”  Afterall, the complainers say, “That is what I would say if I were God.”  Well, to that we have two comments.  First, you and I are not God, so what we might say if we were God is irrelevant.  Second, Jesus was not speaking to us when he said, “I am the good shepherd, I am the light, I am the bread of the world.”  Jesus was speaking to people in ancient Israel.  The Gospel writer John was speaking to the early Christian Church. Jesus spoke to be understood best by those who heard his words.  We need to remember Jesus’ words and the Bible were not spoken or written to us, but they were spoken and written for us.

          And so in these words that were written for us, we must come to see and seize upon their significance.  Jesus tells us in his own words, “I AM.”  I AM your savior if you let me in.  I AM your guide if you will follow me.  I AM your comforter if you will receive me.  I AM the one who will give you the words to say and the actions to take to spur on in love those seated next to you and to your neighbor. I AM the one who will stir you up to and ignite a passion within because I am your Lord and your God.  I AM the one who loves you and will give your life eternal purpose, meaning, and significance.  This is why we come to church.  To spur one another one and to be blessed with an improved appetite for God to live in and through him who has always been, who is, and who will also be, I AM.  Amen and Amen.

07-02 The Lord's Supper

                    This Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, we Baptist use to celebrate what we call “The Lord’s Supper.”  It is a moment in which we share a bite of bread and sip of grape juice together. We offer this moment to anyone and everyone who wishes to honor the significance of the moment.

          Other Christian denominations celebrate the moment differently than we do.  Some do what we do every Sunday.  Some do what we do every day of the week.  Some denominations call the moment a sacrament because they believe that grace of God is contained in the bread and wine, not juice, that they use.  And because it is a sacrament, because God’s grace is believed to be in the bread and the wine, only members of that denomination can celebrate that moment.  We Baptists would be disinvited from participating in that moment with those of other denominations.  We will talk more about that in a few minutes.

          What is this moment all about, this celebration of the Lord’s Supper?  What was it that Jesus did in establishing this practice?  How should we think about the Lord’s Supper and how should the Lord’s Supper change the way we think, speak, and behave?

          I would like us to begin with the first description of this moment that was memorialized in writing.  The Apostle Paul captured the practice of the Lord’s Supper in a letter he wrote to the church at Corinth.  The versions of the Lord’s Supper found in the gospels would be written years later.

          Paul wrote, “23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  There are just 100 words used to describe an important moment and command that Jesus spoke to his apostles.

          Paul said, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23a).  Paul may not mean here that he received a special revelation from Jesus about this event as much as Paul means he received Jesus’ words from the other apostles who were present at the occasion.  Paul is also clear in these opening words that Paul had previously taught the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper.  Unfortunately, some in the Corinthian church had turned the supper more into a frat party with gluttonous eating and drinking to intoxication. Paul wanted the church to remember what was going on between Jesus and the apostles.

          Paul said the setting for this event was on the night Jesus was betrayed.  Jesus was betrayed by Judas to the chief priests who arrested Jesus and in turned betrayed Jesus to the Romans to be beaten and executed as a criminal.  Jesus knew these things were going to happen. None of the apostles, not even Judas, knew how Jesus’ betrayal would play out.  But Jesus knew his body and his blood would be required of him and that Jesus would soon die.  Jesus had told his disciples that such betrayals and death would come to him, but Jesus’ disciples could not or would not believe.

          This brings us to a key understanding about the ways of God. Although God’s ways are higher than our ways and there is much mystery in the way God acts or does not act, God is not secretive.  God speaks about what is to happen before it happens so that we can know the wisdom and insight of God.  Jesus had told his disciples that he “must suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21).  Even at the dinner Jesus and his disciples shared Jesus said, “18 I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’  19 “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am” (John 13:18-19).

          Yet even though Jesus told the disciples what would happen, the disciples were unmoved in understanding.  A song writer put Jesus’ experience this way.  In Jesus’ words, “I've tried so many ways to show you my love, And show you who I am, Sometimes I wonder if you've ever learned, Or if you understand.” And yet Jesus knowing all that would happen offered one more way to know what was about to happen to him.

It was that night of betrayal that Paul said Jesus chose to take bread, give thanks, break the bread, and say, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me’ (1 Corinthians 11:24).  The pieces of bread were then distributed to be eaten by the Twelve apostles, including to Peter who would later deny Jesus three times, to Judas who would later betray Jesus, and to the other ten who would desert Jesus upon Jesus’ arrest.

          What were the Apostles eating that night?  Was it a piece of bread blessed by Jesus was to be used as a way of remembering Jesus giving of his body to them, for them.  Jesus in using the bread was foretelling the destiny of his mortal being.  It would be given over to abuse and execution.

          It was that night of betrayal that Paul said Jesus chose to take the cup and again he gave thanks.  “25 He took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:25).  Jesus in using the cup of wine was foretelling the purpose of his shed blood. Jesus was establishing a new covenant between God and humanity.  The cup was to be a sign of God’s forgiveness and calling to his side those who would remember what had been done by and through his Son, Jesus.

          For Paul concluded, “26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).  The bread and the cup are symbols of Jesus’ death for us.  But what was the point of Jesus’ death?

          Some Christians believe that on the cross, God turned Christ over to Satan on the cross in exchange for the souls of humanity held in bondage of sin.  Satan was not, however, capable of holding Jesus.  Others believe Jesus, who was without sin, gave himself to God for the satisfaction of the dishonor brought by the sin of humanity.  Having freely given himself with no debt owed, God, who is just, would confirm a great reward upon Jesus.  We Baptist, if we can agree on anything, tend to believe that Jesus by offering himself as a sacrifice, by substituting himself for us, actually bearing the punishment that should have been ours, Jesus appeased the Father and effected a reconciliation between God and humanity.  The covenant of reconciliation between we who are sinful and God who was sinful was made between us and God by the voluntary act of Jesus to bear our sins and punishment upon the cross.

This is what Jesus was showing to his disciples at that final meal and Jesus asked them that whenever they shared the bread and cup together to remember Jesus paid it all for them, for us once and for all time.

Jesus’ request of his disciples was simple.  Do this. Give thanks for the bread, share the bread with those who believe in me, and together remember me and what I taught you about the kingdom of God.  Remember me and my command to love one another.  Remember me, the one who redeemed you from hell. 

Do this.  Give thanks for the cup.  Share the cup with those who believe in me, and together remember that we are all in covenant with God.  We all have a standing with God because of Jesus’ completed work on the cross. 

There is something heavenly and something earthly about our celebration.  There is something past, something present, and something future about our celebration.  For as we eat the bread and drink from the cup we do so as a way of showing Jesus died and that at just the right time, Jesus will return to the earth. 

The celebration of the bread and the cup is not about sacrificing Jesus again such that the bread and cup are now somehow made into the flesh and blood of Christ.  The bread and the cup were not to become the something itself containing God’s grace that granted grace to whomever eat of it or drank from it whether they desired God’s grace or not.  The bread and cup are for believers and is to draw us together not push us a part.

I have a book entitled, Martyrs’ Mirror.  It was first published in 1660.  The book, among other things, tries to give an account of ever Christian martyred from Jesus Christ to the year 1660.  The book favors the story of the Baptist beginning with the Anabaptist and provides an index and story for over 1,000 early Baptists, Anabaptists, who were martyred, killed for their beliefs, between the years 1525 and 1660.  These people were not killed by pagans but by others who claimed a belief in Christ.  What was the crime of the Baptists warranting their deaths?  There were two reasons.  First, the early Baptists desired what they thought the Bible commanded and that was a believer’s baptism, meaning they believed you should make the decision to decide your belief in Christ when you make it for yourself. Second, the early Baptist desired what they thought the Bible commanded, a remembrance of Jesus through the bread and cup.  They believed Jesus died once and for all and that act of love was best remembered in eating simple bread and drinking from a simple cup.  A simple piece of bread and simple cup was what Jesus left his disciples to help the church to come, the church that is, and the church that will be to be united across the ages as brothers and sisters.  It is for the reasons of Christ that though we are excluded by some Christian groups today for our beliefs, we choose to exclude no Christian who seeks to remember Jesus.  We believe remembering Jesus is the clearest way for us to remember that we have been forgiven much and therefore, we must forgive much between us. The bread and the cup indicate a spiritual reality and the activity of the Holy Spirit among the community of believers.  Our celebration is a sign that points beyond itself to the reality of the Christ who died for us, the Savior who was raised from the dead for us, the Lord who ascended into the heavens for us, and the God, who when the time is right will come again.   The bread and the cup are the most powerful means by which the Christian community publicly gives thanks for the saving death of Christ, confesses faith in our Lord, and pledges obedience and service to God.

I want to close today, we the song, “Do you believe in Me?”  It is a song about the celebration of the bread and the cup.  The lyrics are written and sung from the perspective of Jesus to his disciples, who now include you and me.
Do you believe in me
And in the words I say
And in Him who sent me from above
Do you believe in my love

I've tried so many ways to show you my love
And show you who I am
Sometimes I wonder if you've ever learned
Or if you understand
Do you believe in me (do you believe in me)
And in the words I say (and in the words I say)
And in Him who sent me from above (sent me from above)
Do you believe in my love (do you believe in my love)

This is my body that is broken for you
Never forget what I've done
This is my blood that is shed for you
This is what makes us one
Do you believe in me
And in the words I say (do you believe)
And in Him who sent me from above (in Him who sent me from above)
Do you believe in my love?

What we will do here in a few moments when we share the Lord’s Supper is spiritually more profound and more significant than anything else we could do or witness today.  It reminds us that Christ died for us and our separation from God is over.  It means the divisions between us and within our families need to melt away.  It means Christ came back to life and now sits with God speaking on our behalf.  It means Christ will come again.  If you have never publicly acknowledged Jesus who made this possible, listen to this invitation in Jesus’ own words, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20).  Dine with him.  Jesus is inviting you into fellowship with Him, with the person seated next to you, and with me.  That is the power of the Word of God and the spiritual significance of what we are about to do.  Come to the table, let us break bread, let us be blessed, and reconciled to God and one another.  Amen.


06-25 Childlike vs Childish

          I want to begin today with a pop quiz.  Do you remember pop quizzes in school?  The teacher would start the class by asking you to take a quiz.  It was rarely a fun time.  But nevertheless, let’s take a pop quiz.

          Here is your quiz question.  I want you to choose a number between 0 and 10, where 0 means “I know I will not” and 10 means “I know I will.”  You can choose 0, 10, or any number in between those as a measure of your confidence. Here is the question, “If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in heaven is?”  Got the question?  Now choose the number that reflects the level of confidence you have for your answer.  Choose any number from 0 to 10, where 0 means “I know I will not” and 10 means “I know I will.”  Got your number?

          Pop quizzes did not get any better as we got older.  Here is the thing about this pop quiz.  Even though there are eleven numbers we could choose from as an answer: 0,1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10.  There are actually only two answers to this question.  There is 10, meaning, “If I die right now, I will be in heaven” and every other number that says, “If I die right now, I am not entirely sure I will be in heaven.”  Every other number other than the number 10 expresses some doubt about our salvation and destiny.  Friends, Jesus did not come that we might doubt less about our salvation and destiny. Jesus came that we would know. The gospel writers were not inspired by the Holy Spirit to tell us the good news that we might doubt less about our salvation and destiny.  The gospel writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit that we would know.  The Apostle John summed it up this way, “13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).  We want to know that we are saved and that our eternal destiny with God is assured.  We want to live every day with the answer 10 resounding in our minds, “I know my Savior, He knows me, and that He will never leave me nor forsake me!  And I know my place is with Him.”

          John said, “13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).  When we read John’s words again, we come to realize that knowing we have eternal life is dependent upon our belief in the name of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  Knowing is dependent upon believing.  So, perhaps, when we take that pop quiz and answer any number other than 10, we are really thinking about the depth of our belief in Jesus as the Son of God.  When we choose 8 or 9 as our answer to the pop quiz perhaps what we are saying is “I am almost certain that Jesus is the Son of God, but I have a couple of things I am not sure about.”  Again, Jesus coming was not to have us almost belief.  When it comes to Jesus, we either believe or we do not.

          So perhaps we could look today at the formation of beliefs as Jesus asked us to do. To that end, I would like us to turn our attention to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18.  Jesus’ disciples came to Jesus with a question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1b).  This is one of the things that I love about the Bible, particularly the gospels.  The Gospels, written by the apostles directly or their protégés, exude honesty because they do not cast the apostles as heroes who always got things right.  Most of the time, the gospels show the apostles as rather dense and missed the point.  The opening question to Matthew 18 is one of those examples where it seems the apostles masterfully missed the point.  “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” gives rise to the idea of a hierarchy in which someone was going to be more powerful, a person of greater authority, than another person.  The apostles, familiar with the hierarch of power with kings, emperors, and religious orders were looking for assurance of their princely status.

          It is a wonder that Jesus never seemed to get tired of answering these types of questions.  Instead of being weary, Jesus tried to find another way of explaining the ways of the kingdom.  This time, Matthew said, “He [Jesus] called a little child to him and placed the child among them [the disciples]” (Matthew 18:2).  This makes for an interesting picture.  You had 12 grown men sitting together with a young child seated among them all waiting for Jesus to answer the question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1b).

          Jesus then had this to say, ““Truly I tell you (my disciples), unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).  Jesus’ words must have fallen hard on his disciples because Jesus said two important things.

First, unless his disciples changed then they would never enter the kingdom of heaven.  The disciples’ question, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1b), presumed that they were already in the kingdom of heaven. All they were looking for was how high up in the power structure of the kingdom they would be sitting.  Jesus’ words said, “Think again.  You are not even in the kingdom of heaven.  Why are you asking about who is the greatest?”  Jesus’ words must have taken away the breath of each disciple.  “What, we must change to be part of the kingdom? We thought we were already in the kingdom?”  This is disturbing news.  It is as though to the pop quiz question, “If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in my place in heaven is?” Jesus said to his disciples, “Your answer should be 0.”

Now that Jesus had the disciples undivided attention, Jesus’ words told them the second important thing. “You must become like the little child seated among you to come into the kingdom of God.”  If you want to answer 10 to the pop quiz question, ‘If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in my place in heaven is?’ then become childlike.

Jesus then continued, “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).  To become great in the kingdom, Jesus said, first become humble as a child.  What was the lowly position of this child?  Little children, like the one seated with the disciples, did not have and still today do not have any earthly authority.  Little children are never described as great or powerful because they are not.  Little children have an innocence about them.  They are trusting.  They are simple in their ways and lack dark motives.  Little children are honest.  They are full of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.  They look for joy in all circumstances and, this is important, little children believe fully and completely in those who love them.

And this is an important life lesson.  If a child does not believe they are loved, they stop loving themselves.  And a person who does not love themselves is in danger because they are hopeless.  Jesus came to love us and give us hope.

So, Jesus’ answer to his disciples was unexpected.  Jesus said to enter the kingdom of heaven you must become childlike by believing fully and completely in the one who loves them, Jesus the Christ.  And in believing in Jesus and welcoming him, the disciples would therefore also believe in the one who sent Jesus, God.  Believe as a child and be humble as a child who has no pretense of authority, and you will know that you will be found in the kingdom of heaven.

And so God’s Word says we must be childlike to be in the kingdom and be able to give an answer of 10 out of 10 to the pop quiz question, “If I died right now, my level of confidence that I would be in my place in heaven is?”  But we learn later in the New Testament letter from the Apostle Paul that we must put away our childish thinking?  Was Paul in conflict with Jesus?  Is there a difference between childlike belief and childish thinking? If so, what was Paul’s point?

Paul talked about childishness in addressing spiritual gifts in a letter to the church at Corinth.  Paul said that as children of God, as the church, people would receive spiritual gifts to strengthen the body of Christ, the church. Paul said some people were gifted to be apostles, prophets, teachers, givers of miracles, gifted healers, helpers, counselors, and others who could speak in different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28).  These were the gifts that the people in the Corinth church desired the most because with them came not just great works but recognition.  The childlike behaviors necessary to enter the kingdom had become childish and petty behaviors over who had the greatest gifts.  The believers in the church at Corinth had been trying to one up each other with their spiritual gifts as a way of elevating themselves within the church itself. 

It is interesting that the disciples wanted recognition of greatness in the kingdom and Jesus said you must first become childlike.  Now, in maturing in the faith and in their beliefs within the kingdom, people were still looking for ways to be seen as greater than one another with the use of their gifts.  We somehow, for some reason, want to be recognized as better than someone else.

Paul sought to correct this desire for superior standing of gifts within the church itself.  Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).  Paul was saying that for the believer, the one who had become a child to enter the kingdom, and now was maturing in the faith, love must be the underpinning motivation for everything they do especially in using spiritual gifts whatever they may be.

And from that posture of love in life and in the use of spiritual gifts, Paul wrote that such a motivation of love is essential because love is an expression of humility for “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). 

Paul’s words about love so often read at weddings are not so much about marital relationships as they are about the motivations for serving one another and not being childish in the use of our spiritual gifts for others.  For Paul said he came to this understanding of love because he had matured in the faith. “11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”  Paul was putting away the childishness that we can display and took on the maturity of an adult believer.

          Paul was excited to be a childlike believer in Jesus who had matured enough to put away the petty nature of childishness.  Paul was excited that he knew with certainty that he would be in heaven one day.  Yet Paul understood that as wonderful as that knowledge was of being in Christ now, it would not compare to the overwhelming joy of being with Jesus later.  Paul said to the Corinthians, “For we know in part [now] and we prophesy in part [which teach about what is to come], 10 but when completeness comes [when in Jesus’ presence], what is in part disappears… 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully [the glory of knowing Christ completely], even as I am fully known [by Christ]” (1 Corinthians 13:9 and 12).  As wonderful as we might imagine it will be to with Christ and to have Christ live through us in love, to be in Jesus’ personal presence, Paul said, will be far more glorious than whatever we have imagined.

          What then can we take from these words of Jesus and his apostles John and Paul? I think there are two things that we can draw for ourselves.  First, we need not doubt our salvation.  We should be 10 out of 10 in knowing that believers go to heaven.  Jesus came to be known and reveal a loving God to us. And so, to carry around that sense of absolute certainty that if we have given our life to Christ, it means we became childlike and accepted Jesus because he is utterly trustworthy and loving toward us.  We want to remember that to be in Christ, to be in the kingdom of heaven, we must have been born again. 

Secondly, we should come to realize that if greatness is a thing in that kingdom, then that greatness will not be found in childishly seeking greatness.  Instead, greatness will be given to us because we sought to be humble and that humbleness is best expressed through love.  If there is greatness for us, then it will be given because God is love and God saw that we used the gift of our life and our spiritual gifts motivated by a love that is humble because love is patient, kind, not easily angered, that rejoices in the truth, protecting, giving hope, and never failing.

Let us all then be childlike and know Jesus loves us and let us put away childish things and love as an expression of our humility before God.  Amen and Amen. 

06-18 Miracle Over Selfishness

We have been exploring the meaning of miracles for a few weeks now and I would like to use today to finish up that series with one more miracle.  As we have looked at the miracles described in the Gospels, we have found each one was a triumph for a person or two because someone’s life was immeasurably changed.  Someone who was crippled could now walk.  Another person possessed by a demon was now free from the bondage of evil.  Yet laying beneath every miracle was the meaning of the miracle, intended for those who witnessed the miracle and for those people like us who read about the miracle.  And each miracle brings an enduring lesson that was intended to bring hope, peace, and understanding within a world that can often be chaotic, conflicted, and purposeless.

Today, I want to look at a miracle that occurs relatively late in the public ministry of Jesus.  In fact, after this miracle, there are only three more miracles described in the gospels. At this point in Jesus public ministry, Jesus is very near his final turn toward Jerusalem and destiny with the cross on Calvary.

Let’s begin by looking at our New Testament reading from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10, beginning at verse 46.  Scholars credit the Gospel according to Mark to a young man named John Mark, a protégé of the Apostle Peter.  Mark’s approach was to move his readers quickly through the story of Jesus’ life and ministry.  The first half of the Gospel, chapters 1 through 8, answers the question, “Who is Jesus?”  The answer is brief.   He is the Son of God; the one the prophets foretold would come to heal and make right humanity’s relationship with God.  The second half of the Gospel, chapter 9 through 16, answer the question, “How will Jesus, Son of God, accomplish God’s mission?”  The answer is disturbing; “31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (8:31).”

          Our text today comes from the second half of the Gospel and occurs as Jesus briefly passed through the city of Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.  To fully appreciate the scene surrounding the miracle we need to first look at a scene that precedes the miracle.  In this prior scene, Jesus and his disciples came through some difficult and tense moments. The apostles James and John, giants in our understanding of the Christian character, had approached Jesus in secret.  They had been thinking about something, undoubtedly talking to each other about it. It seemed to James and John that Jesus was about to take his role as the Messiah King.  James and John came to Jesus and asked Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37).  James and John believing that Jesus would soon assume a position of great power, wanted to be Jesus’ principal deputies.  If Jesus was to be number 1 in the land, then James and John wanted to be number 2 and number 3.  They wanted power to decide who would (or would not) do what, when, where, and how. James and John displayed a character that sought power and dominion over others. They did not seek authority from Jesus for the ministry in his name.  They sought authority for personal standing and control of others. 

John Mark, our gospel writer, recorded these words and reaction by the other apostles when James’ and John’s secret plan became known, “41 When the ten (other disciples) heard this, they began to be angry with James and John” (Mark 10:41).  The ten were angry because someone else was trying to get one over on them and prevent them from becoming number 2 or number 3 in Jesus’ power structure.  “42 So Jesus called them (the Twelve) and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). 

Christian character is not about power for oneself, it is about empowering others.  Christian character is about following the example of giving others hope by serving them. Jesus said, “45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  Jesus was correcting the thinking of the disciples, so that their words would not be self-centered but instead their words and deeds would be gracious.  With gracious words comes a servant’s heart with deeds of care for others.  For a Christian, to act on behalf of another, to be a servant, is an obligation on us from God.  It is a requirement for our lives, but it is not a burden.  To act for another, is a privilege and a blessing to know that in such behaviors we are doing exactly what God desires from us. Done often enough, those acts become habitual; meaning it is done almost without conscious decision because it has become an inseparable part of who we have become.  When our behavior is such, then it defines our character as that of Christ for we came to serve not be served.  That is the character model Christ wanted from his disciples, but it was not the character exhibited by James and John through their secret quest for power.

With the stage set, we turn to verse 46.  “46 They (Jesus and his disciples) came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside” (Mark 10:46). In the ancient language, the prefix, “bar,” means “son of.”  This man, Bartimaeus, sat, blind, an outcast from society.  His life was reduced to begging for money or food, making him dependent upon others for his very survival.  This was how people saw Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, a drain on society and unable to contribute.  How often do we form our thoughts about the character traits of a person by their external appearance or circumstances?  If we think superficially, our words, deeds, habits will inform our character and we will be superficial.  Christ wants us to look at the heart of the person and acknowledge the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, and then serve the external needs of others.

  In verse 47, as crowd, this mass of people swirling before, around, and behind Jesus, moved passed Bartimaeus. ”He [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he [Bartimaeus] began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Mark 10:47).  Think about the scene for a moment.  Jesus, to many was just a miracle worker, to others the Son of God, was passing by the very road in which blind Bartimaeus sat as an outcast.  Bartimaeus realized that Jesus was the cause of the commotion, but Bartimaeus could not see in front of him.  It was then two things happened. 

First, everyone who knew the healing power of Jesus and knew Bartimaeus or at least could observe Bartimaeus’ condition, either consciously or unthinkingly chose not to ask Jesus to serve Bartimaeus.  No one, not one of the Twelve, seemed to think Bartimaeus worthy to be introduced to Jesus.  Apparently, Jesus’ lessons to his disciples on being a servant to others was sinking in slowly or not at all.  Are we like those of that crowd?  We know Jesus, we follow him, we study the Bible, we do acts of charity, but are we also unwilling to introduce the outcast to Christ?  Ponder that question this week. 

The second thing that happened was Bartimaeus spoke loudly calling to Jesus knowing that Jesus was his sole source of grace.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus, the outcast, the blind beggar saw something almost no one else saw; the promise of God’s love right before him.  He praised Jesus as the rightful heir of King David’s throne and the giver of grace through healing.  These were Bartimaeus’ thoughts and his thoughts led him to speak.

Now we would think Bartimaeus’ cry would be the end of the conflict in the story.  Bartimaeus has shouted out his testimony, made known his need, and now the crowd will stop and get Jesus to help him.

But verse 48 tells us something different, “48 Many (of the crowd) sternly ordered him (Bartimaeus) to be quiet” (Mark 10:48).  Think about this scene for a moment.  Bartimaeus was giving testimony about Jesus and the response from those who would form the core of the early Christian Church, from those who were following Jesus was to yell back at Bartimaeus, “Stop being such a bother and be quiet.  No one wants to hear from you!”  We expect hardhearted responses from the world but a hardhearted response from those literally inches away from Jesus seems unconscionable.  This might have been the end of the story, but it was not.

Instead of being quiet, “Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Mark 10:48).  Bartimaeus’ would not be silenced so he acted again this time shouting to Jesus over the objections of the church and repeating his call to Jesus as His savior and the only source of grace.  This interaction between Bartimaeus and the crowd, which included the disciples, should cause us to examine our individual and collective behaviors.  Are there things we are doing that make coming to Christ harder?  It is a sobering thought.

This time, in response to Bartimaeus’ shouting over the church, there was a different response.  This time “49 Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you’” (Mark 10:49).  Don’t you just love how people responded to Jesus’ command to bring Bartimaeus to Jesus when just moments before they were telling this same Bartimaeus to be quiet. Calling Bartimaeus to Jesus should have been the response of the church when Jesus began walking through Jericho. The crowd should have said, “Bartimaeus, take heart, get up, Jesus is here!”  This should have been the response of the church after Bartimaeus spoke up the first time, “Bartimaeus, take heart, get up, come to Jesus!”  This should have been the response of the church after Bartimaeus spoke up the second time.  “Forgive us, Bartimaeus, take heart, get up, come to Jesus!”  The response, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you’” came only after Jesus directed the church to act.  We must always act on behalf of another, to be a servant, and see it as an obligation on us from God, but not a burden.  To act for another, is a privilege and a blessing to know that we are doing exactly what God desires from us.

Bartimaeus now prompted and helped by the crowd, “50 Threw off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52 Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight” (Mark 10:50-52).  Finally, Bartimaeus could see.  What an amazing joy for Bartimaeus.

But what do we make of this miracle for ourselves? What is the enduring lesson here that brings us more and more in the person and character of Jesus?  There are a few things for us to consider.

First, James and John had approached Jesus looking to make a secret deal and be giving power what their perceived as Jesus’ worldly kingdom. In secretness, Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  James and John asked for power over others.  Jesus said no and the core of the church to be, the ten other disciples, were in an uproar at James’ and John’s attempt at a power grab.  I don’t think the point of the other disciples being upset was that they were more righteous than James and John, it was more likely they were upset that they did not try to grab power first.  Jesus taught his disciples, and Jesus teaches us, “You must become servants of one another.”

Right after this scene with James and John, Jesus and the disciples were in Jericho where blind Bartimaeus shouted to Jesus in public seeking mercy, seeking healing.  The response from the church was for Bartimaeus to be quiet.  The church tried to stand in the way of Jesus serving Bartimaeus.  Obviously, the lesson of being a servant was lost on the disciples and the crowd. Bartimaeus called again and Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Bartimaeus said, “Heal me.”  Bartimaeus received sight and was satisfied.  We learn from this that we must not be a stumbling block for others to come to Christ.

There is one final lesson.  At the close of this miracle scene, Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:50a).  But Bartimaeus did not go.  Instead, Bartimaeus left behind his beggar’s cloak and followed Jesus on the way. Bartimaeus was not interested in returning to his old life or even his old garment.  Bartimaeus was interested in only one thing: following Jesus.  Is that how we think, speak, and act?  Do we genuinely move from our old life and old ways and follow a new way with Christ?

We might ask, Bartimaeus was on the way but where was Jesus going?  Mark said Jesus next stop was Jerusalem for a triumphal entry. As far as we know, Bartimaeus was there and no doubt was singing and crying out, ““Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Jesus was going to the cross and Bartimaeus was following him.  That was Bartimaeus’ new character.  This is the deeper meaning of the miracle.

          What is your character?  As we close let’s think of our response the way the Apostle Paul put it.  “1-2 Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?”  3-6 That’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles, but waded right in and helped out. “I took on the troubles of the troubled,” is the way Scripture puts it. Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever he will do next. May our dependably steady and warmly personal God develop maturity in you so that you get along with each other as well as Jesus gets along with us all. Then we’ll be a choir—not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!  7-13 So reach out and welcome one another to God’s glory. Jesus did it; now you do it!” (Romans 15:1-8 MSG).  Amen and Amen.

06-11 Miracle Over Fear

          One of the greatest things we face in life is fear. Fear is an intensely unpleasant emotion in response to perceiving or recognizing a danger or threat.  When we become fearful, we can become emotionally responsive to the situation.  We have a greater tendency to thrash about seeking to at least chase away whatever makes us afraid. 

But there are two important things for us to remember about fear.  The first is that we only ever fear something that has not happened.  If it is snowing and we must drive in the snow, we might fear that we will get stuck in the snow or that we might have an accident because of the slippery conditions.  But neither condition has occurred.  We are at that moment neither stuck nor in an accident, but we fear.  So, we fear only those things that have not yet happened. Should we later get stuck in the snow, we now no longer fear being stuck in the snow.  We may now fear that being stuck in the snow has caused damage to our car or that we will miss our appointment, but we no longer fear what has happened.  Whatever we fear has not happened.

          The second thing we learn about fear is that going through a fearful experience can sharpen our understanding of what is important.  Think again about that snowstorm.  Let’s say you decided not to go out in that snowstorm, but you receive a call letting you know that a loved one did go out in the storm and got into a traffic accident.  Instantly, you fear the consequences of that accident.  Then you hear the words, “Everyone is OK, but the car is not in good shape.”  Your immediate response is, “I am so glad to hear everyone is OK, we can always replace the car.”   Our response reflects our understanding of sharpened priorities, what we value the most.  As long as everyone is OK (that is our priority), we can always replace the car (not our priority).

          And so, fear is an unpleasant emotion, but fear involves things which have not happened, and fear sharpens our understanding of what is important.  How then does our understanding of fear play in the development of our faith?  Well, today, let’s look at a miracle story that has at its foundation the unpleasant emotion of fear.  This miracle story is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.  Today, I would like to use Matthew’s account of the miracle.

          As we come into the scene, we would want to know that dreadful news had reached Jesus.  Matthew wrote, “6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he (Herod) promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother (Herodias), she (the girl who danced) said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’ 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he (Herod) ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His (John the Baptist’s) head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother (Herodias). 12 John’s disciples came and took his (John the Baptist’s) body and buried it. Then they (John’s disciples) went and told Jesus” (Matthew 14:6-12). 

This was awful news. John the Baptist was the messenger sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the people.  John’s message was simple, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” When Jesus began his own public ministry Jesus began by repeating John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Now John was dead.  Killed on the whim of a king who lustfully sought after the affections of a young woman. Jesus and his disciples must have grieved this news.  Particularly, Andrew and John must have been deeply affected by the news of John the Baptist’s death as Andrew and John had been disciples of John the Baptist before becoming disciples of Jesus. 

Matthew wrote, “13 When Jesus heard what had happened [to John the Baptist], he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Matthew 14:13).  Jesus knew that his disciples needed some time to absorb the impact of John the Baptist’s death.  The disciples would have been anxious and fearful that perhaps their own lives could be ended in such an arbitrary and cruel manner.  It is a common human response for us to see something happen to our friends and believe the same fate could befall us.  I think Jesus wanted his disciples to have some time to grieve.

Matthew wrote that, 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick (Matthew 14:14).  There apparently was no time for solitude for Jesus and his disciples.  If we were to continue to read in Matthew, we would find that the crowd was exceptionally large, numbering 5,000 men alone.  It was there that Jesus fed the five thousand. After the meal was completed, “22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee), while he (Jesus) dismissed the crowd. 23 After he (Jesus) had dismissed them (the crowd), he (Jesus) went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he (Jesus) was there alone, 24 and the boat (with the disciples) was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it” (Matthew 14:22-24).  Albeit separate, at last Jesus and his disciples finally had some solitude to consider what had happened to their friend, John the Baptist.

“Then 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them (the disciples), (by) walking on the lake” (Matthew 14:25).  I find this verse so striking.  Matthew reports without introduction or explanation, in a rather ho hum matter of fact manner, that Jesus began walking on the lake, almost as though to walk on the lake as it was being whipped up into waves by winds no less, was a common day occurrence.  What Matthew describes here calmly is a miracle of Jesus calming overcoming the elements of nature.  Apparently, the waves were of no concern to Jesus because he was making good progress in crossing the lake.  “26 When the disciples saw him (Jesus) walking on the lake, they (the disciples) were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear” (Matthew 14:26).  The Greek word here for “ghost,” is phantasma, fan;tas-mah.  The word means a specter, the spirit of someone who had died.  The disciples did not recognize this figure. Perhaps in their grief, the disciples believed this specter was the ghost of John the Baptist.  Perhaps.  We do not know.  What we do know is that in believing the figure was the spirit of a dead person, the disciples cried out in fear, terror, and dread because the disciples presumed that this specter would bring upon them some harm or calamity.  But we also know that whatever the disciples feared in that moment had not yet happened and whatever they feared would sharpen their priorities.

Upon hearing the cries of the disciples, “27 Jesus immediately said to them (the disciples): ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’ 28 ‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’ 29 ‘Come,’ he (Jesus) said” (Matthew 14:27-29).  Fear had been working on Peter and his priorities. Fear of what had happened to John the Baptist and fear of seeing a ghost had sharpened Peter’s perspective about what was most important to him.  So when Peter heard Jesus’ voice, though Peter still could not fully make out the figure walking upon the water as Jesus, Peter wanted desperately to be in Jesus’ presence.  Peter, rather than calling to Jesus and saying, “Jesus, come quickly to us!” Peter chose instead to call to Jesus and saying, “Tell me, empower me, to come quickly over the water to you!” Peter was living out that we must do and that is in our fear we must draw near to God.  Scripture says, “22 Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:22).  In our moments of distress God is present but we must in faith draw near to him if we want our fears to be fully relieved.

And so Peter, with fear having shaped his priorities and creating within Peter a deep desire of being with God, got out of a perfectly good boat and “Walked on the water and came toward Jesus” (Matthew 14:29b).  Fear had transformed Peter’s heart and Peter sincerely wanted to be with Jesus standing by faith upon the waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Nothing would have been more satisfying and more reassuring for Peter than to have joined Jesus in this ongoing miracle over the power of the elements by standing and walking upon the water.

But then as Peter  began to walk upon the water, Peter turned his attention away from Jesus and toward the wind and the waves.  “30 But when he (Peter) saw the wind, he (Peter) was afraid and, beginning to sink.” (Matthew 14:30a).  I genuinely love the stories of Peter because he is so human.  We see here amid this miracle of Jesus walking on water and Peter now walking on water, this high point of spiritual life, Peter shifted his attention back to things that make him fearful.  The wind made Peter fearful.  The waves made Peter fearful.  Peter, the experienced fisherman, knew that winds and waves could overcome someone leading to them drowning.  Peter went from faith to fear.  Peter feared something that had not yet happened.

In shifting his attention back to fear, Peter began to sink beneath the waves.  What was he going to do?  Peter knew could not save himself and so it would seem Peter had only two choices.  Either Peter could call out to his partners in the boat, “Throw me a line and pull me back into the boat!” or Peter could appeal to Jesus for help.  Fear of drowning again sharpened Peter’s understanding of his priorities.  We see Peter express his priorities with his cry, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30b).  Peter chose faith to resolve his fear.  “31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31).  Jesus’ words acknowledge Peter was the only one of the disciples to have expressed faith to overcome their fears and lamented that Peter did not stay in faith but returned to fear.

Matthew concluded the scene this way, “32 And when they (Jesus and Peter) climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat {the disciples) worshiped him (Jesus), saying, ’Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:32).  This miracle changed the disciples.  They no longer saw Jesus as just a great teacher, or just as a miracle worker.  The disciples saw Jesus as the Son of God in whom it was proper to offer worship reserved only for God himself. 

What then do we make of this miracle for our lives? What was the purpose and meaning of the miracle?  There are three things I would like us to consider.

First, this miracle was the longest one to date and a miracle done only for the benefit of his disciples.  In all previous miracles, something happened instantly.  In the past, the disciples witnessed someone’s eyesight immediately restored, leprosy cleansed, or a demon expelled at Jesus’ command.  This miracle occurred only in the presence of the disciples and extended over many minutes or perhaps even hours.  I think the extended time was needed because Jesus was working with his disciples who were beset with powerful emotions of grief and fear.  John the Baptist, Jesus’ closest ally and friend of the disciples, had been murdered on a whim.  There was grief, uncertainty, regret, and fear.  We all understand these emotions because we all have experienced these emotions when a loved one has died.  These emotions can prevent us from seeing God clearly or understanding God’s purpose for our life.  Jesus needed to address the needs of his disciples.  We need to look at this miracle to see how our own emotions born in suffering can prevent us from seeing God clearly.

Second, the miracle of Jesus rather than at first developing awe, wonder, and amazement instead produced fear as the disciples believed at first that Jesus walking upon the water was a ghost.  Fear, that terror of things not yet happened, caused the disciples, particularly Peter, to sort through what was the most important thing in life.  Peter concluded that nearest to Jesus was the most important thing in his life and Peter asked Jesus to empower him to come closer.  Peter discovered that we can either believe by faith in Jesus or we can focus on our fears in life, but we cannot do both.  When Peter focused on faith, Peter walked on water.  When Peter shifted from faith back to fear, Peter began to sink beneath the waves.  Our choice then is either faith in Jesus and pursuing a closeness to him or we can pursue our fears, but we cannot pursue both.

Third, the ultimate purpose of this miracle was for the disciples to work through their grief and fear and by faith come to realize that Jesus is the Son of God and to see that Jesus is worthy of worship. After the news of John the Baptist’s murder, Jesus sought solitude for he and his disciples.  But the crowds followed.  In compassion to the crowds, Jesus taught the crowd and then miraculously fed them all.  Now finally, in the solitude of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus ministered to his disciples teaching them that John was as who he said he was, he was the messenger calling people to make straight the paths for the Messiah, the Son of God.  Now on the tumultuous Sea of Galilee, in solitude, guaranteed that there would be no interruptions, Jesus showed the disciples that faith in him, not in John the Baptist, not in miracles themselves, was the ultimate satisfaction for their hearts.  In that realization of all that Jesus is, was, and will be as the Son of God, the response from the disciples was to worship Jesus.  Worship is a foundational practice that helped the disciples remain focused on Jesus and stave off humanly fears.  We must come to see the same, that faith in Jesus as the Son of God is our ultimate source for overcoming our fears.

Yes, it was amazing that Jesus walked on the churning waters of the Sea of Galilee.  Yes, it was amazing that Jesus empowered Peter to walk on those same waters.  Yes, it was amazing that Jesus calmed the winds and the sea.  But all of those miraculous events happened in a matter of minutes or even an hour and then those events were over.  The enduring meaning and significance of the miracle on the Sea of Galilee was the transformation of fear to faith and faith to worship.  We must not let the miracle of the Sea of Galilee pass us by.  What is it that we fear?  Whatever it is, it has not happened.  Whatever it is, whatever we fear, prevents us from seeing God clearly. Is whatever it is that we fear worth not seeing God the way God intends?  If we want to leave our fears behind, we need only say to Jesus, “Ask me to come to you.”  And Jesus will say to us, “Come.”  And when we move against our fears we can be strengthened through our worship of Jesus. Amen and Amen.

06-04 - Faith Amid Miracles

          This is our second week in looking at the miracles of Jesus.  Now, we are told in the dictionary that a miracle is “a surprising and welcome event that cannot be explained by nature or science and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency, such as God.”  In the Bible, in Roman histories, and in Jewish writings, all from the time shortly after Jesus lived here on earth, there is the acknowledgement that Jesus performed wonderful works or miracles.  In the Bible, the source of Jesus’ power to do the miracles is attributed to God.  In the Roman histories, the source of Jesus’ power is never mentioned.  In the Jewish writings the source of Jesus’ power is Satan. The same event, a miracle, and the source is authority is taken to be God, unsaid, or Satan.  How can the same event have such widely differing views on the source of the miracle?  The answer rests not in the miracle itself but instead rests in the belief of the person making meaning of the miracle.  We are always engaged in making meaning out of events in life.  Think of it this way.  On Saturday morning, you get ready to go out and you discover it is raining. You call this a lousy day because the rain is spoiling your plans for a picnic.  The farmer down the street discovers it is raining and calls it a great day because his crops will be watered.  We have the same event and two people making very different meanings of that event.

          Last week, we looked at the meaning of Jesus’ first miracle recorded in the Gospel of Mark, while Jesus was in Capernaum, the hometown of his newly called disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It was in Capernaum that Jesus, in the middle of a synagogue worship service, removed a demon from a man.  We saw that the meaning of that miracle was much more than the change in the man’s physical and spiritual condition.  The deeper meaning of the miracle was that in the kingdom of God, evil will be silenced and expelled.

Today, I wanted us to look at another miracle of Jesus to see what meaning was made then of Jesus’ miracle and what we make of this miracle.  While this miracle of Jesus, is addressed in all four of the Gospels, we will continue, as we did last week, to look at the miracle through the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark.  The miracle is found at the beginning of chapter 2.

As we come into Chapter 2 of Mark, we would know that after removing the demon while in Capernaum, Jesus and his disciples traveled to other villages and towns within Galilee.  Jesus preached the message that the kingdom of God was near, and Jesus performed many miracles by driving out still more demons and healing the sick.  More and more people in Galilee were hearing about Jesus’ miracles and were seeking him out to be healed.  It must have been an exciting time full of expectant people.

Mark wrote that, “1 A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2 They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3 Some men came, bringing to him [Jesus] a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on” (Mark 2:1-4).  The scene Mark described here is probably familiar to many of us.  We have read this story and listened to many sermons coming from it.  The friends of a paralyzed man went through some extraordinary efforts to place their friend before Jesus for a healing of his body.  The house where Jesus was teaching was packed with people.  The only way to Jesus was through the roof. We can well imagine that as the man was lowered through the roof there was great anticipation of seeing the man restored.

Finally, the man with this incurable paralysis safely landed in front of Jesus.  Mark wrote, “5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5).  No. Wait.  What did Jesus say?  “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  You can almost hear from the paralyzed man’s friends as they leaned their heads into the hole they made in the roof calling down to Jesus, “We traveled all this way and dug our way into this house for you to heal him not forgive him!  We want him to walk home and not be carried home!” You can sense for some people this was a moment of great disappointment and confusion.  They had gone through all this effort and no miracle.  There was no “surprising and welcomed event that cannot be explained by nature or science.” 

Instead of healing the man, Jesus said to the man that his sins were forgiven.  Jesus’ statement was concerning.  First, as we will talk about in a moment, the religious leaders present considered Jesus’ statement a grave sin against God because only God, and not person, can forgive sins.  And secondly, Jesus said something that could not be verified.  How could anyone see for themselves that this man’s sins had been forgiven?  We can neither see the accumulation of sin within ourselves, nor can we see that accumulation in another person.  So, how can we see that those sins have been wiped clean?  We can see if a person was healed.  But how do we see if his or her sins are forgiven?

The essential conflict then in this miracle story is not the man’s paralysis but rather what meaning did people make and do we make of Jesus forgiving the man’s sins.  There was no possible way to verify Jesus’ statement, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  And when we cannot verify something for ourselves, but we accept the truth of that statement we call that faith.  Let’s consider for a moment what Scripture says of faith:

  • “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
  • “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
  • “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

Faith is at the heart of the miracle.  Although it seems evident the man and his friends believed the man’s most urgent need was healing, Jesus believed forgiveness was the man’s most urgent and enduring need.  And Jesus believed that understanding the forgiveness of God was the most urgent need for the witnesses to this miracle and the most urgent need for those, like us, who would read the record of this miracle.  At this point, Jesus was starting to move people away from the idea that he was a miracle worker and toward an understanding that faith and forgiveness were fundamental elements of the kingdom of God.

Well, how did the people present that day see this event?  Mark wrote, “6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’  8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, ‘Why are you thinking these things?’” (Mark 2:6-8).  Jesus was intensely aware that the religious leaders were displeased that Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  These leaders had first expected Jesus to say something or do something about the man’s paralysis and that did not happen. And second, these religious leaders did not expect Jesus to be so bold as to claim that he, Jesus, could forgive the man his sins.  The religious leaders were conflicted because they could not reconcile Jesus’ words with their understanding of who Jesus was, a roaming rabbi, and the authority that he was claiming.

To help the religious leaders in their conflict thinking, Jesus asked them a question.  Jesus asked, “9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?” (Mark 2:9).  Of course, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because that statement, unlike “Get up, take your mat and walk!” cannot be proven or disproven and requires no physical movement by the paralyzed man.

Jesus continued, “’10 But I want you (religious leaders) to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’  So he (Jesus) said to the man (the harder statement), 11 ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:10-12).  The religious leaders and the people were in awe at what they had seen.  An incurable paralyzed man was able on his own to get up and walk.  There was no doubt to those there that this event, this miracle, “a surprising and welcome event that cannot be explained by nature or science” and that it occurred through the power and authority of Jesus who stood in front of them.  It would be hard not to be astonished.  But believing in the miracle required no faith because the miracle of healing this man was seen.  We remember that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  So the deeper meaning of the miracle, the faith building experience, must be found in what was not seen.

When Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” that was an unseeable act in which Jesus acted on behalf of that paralyzed man.  Jesus was, as it were, taking the man who had been separated from God by sin and placing the man back into the palm of God’s hand.  Jesus stopped the inevitable ravages of sin that would consume this man’s life.  There was nothing ambiguous about what Jesus said he had done for this man in forgiving his sins just as there was nothing ambiguous about restoring the man’s mobility. This man’s forgiveness and this man’s healing are different sides of the same coin.

What then are we to do with this scene from the Gospel of Mark?  How do we sort out the significance of this scene to our daily life? I think there are three points for us to consider.

First, Jesus acted in an unmistakable manner by forgiving the man’s sins and by empowering the man to walk.  Because Jesus actions cannot be mistaken, Jesus compels us to make a personal decision about Him.  Who is Jesus and what do we do with what Jesus says to us?  Because of his acts to forgive and heal, we cannot honestly see Jesus as just a teacher of loving principles.  We must decide something much deeper about him.

This brings us to our second point.  To decide something deeper about Jesus we cannot do that based on visible evidence. If our beliefs about Jesus were based on the visible evidence alone, we would conclude Jesus was a miracle worker and we would never go any deeper than that.  If this is how we saw Jesus, then we would need a constant source of new miracles to keep us connected to Jesus.  This was the mindset of the religious leaders.  After many miracles, they came to Jesus and said, “Give us a sign, a miracle, that we might see and believe.”  Jesus said no such sign would be given to such a wicked and adulterous generation.  The religious leaders had accepted that Jesus could perform miracles, but they remained unchanged by them.  Even while Jesus was nailed to the cross, the religious leaders hounded Jesus for a miracle. They said, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42).  The religious leaders never came to know Jesus the Christ.

          The unmistakable acts of Jesus to forgive and to restore the paralyzed man to health requires that we decide by faith, not be sight, what we believe about Jesus.  We must decide without seeing whether Jesus is the Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away sin, and the one who forgives us and places us back into the hand of God as a child of God.  If we conclude Jesus is not who he says he is, then we can just stop here, there would be no reason to go to the third point.  But if we believe by faith that Jesus is our Lord and Savior, then we come to our third point.

          When by faith we come to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, it is then by the aid of the Holy Spirit do we begin to understand that Jesus acted to forgive the man all his sins and in doing so took the Word of God and made it an integral part of life.  We see right away that forgiveness is not a matter of teaching but rather acting in faith.  We come to see that to receive forgiveness and extend it to another person is an act of submission to God.  Jesus said, “16 My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. 17 Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:16-17). This means that only those who submit themselves to God in faith will come to fully understand who Jesus Christ truly is. 

          As we think about this question, who Jesus is, we do so as we are about to partake in the Lord’s Supper.  The Lord’s Supper, like a miracle, is not a thought, it is an action.  The Lord’s Supper is an action we take to remind us that we believe by faith Jesus’ words when he said that the bread is his body, and the cup of juice is his blood. And because we have accepted Jesus and we are doing God’s will by celebrating the Lord’s Supper, we can know the deeper meaning of the Lord’s Supper as an act of remembering and loving Jesus who placed us into God’s hand by forgiving us just as he had forgiven a paralyzed man in house in Capernaum.  Let’s pray.

05-28 Miracles

          One of the core beliefs of Christianity is the belief in the miracles, signs, and wonders done at the command of Jesus.  These supernatural experiences were varied in scope with some miracles done in private and others done in public.  Jesus cast our demons, healed the sick, raised people from the dead, and controlled the forces of nature.  The stories of Jesus miraculous powers were shared among the early church.  The miracles were and are an integral part of the Christian Church. 

The miracles of Jesus even drew the attention of people outside the Christian community.  The Roman historian, Josephus, wrote, “Now about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man.  For he was a doer of wonderful works, a teach of such men as received truth with pleasure.”  Josephus’ first mention of Jesus is that as a “doer of wonderful works.”  Jesus’ miracles caught the attention of the ancient Romans.

Jesus and his supernatural acts were written about in the writings of the ancient Jews in the Babylonian Talmud.  The Talmud claimed that Jesus was stoned to death because Jesus had “practiced sorcery, incited people to idol worship, and led the Jewish people astray” (Sanhedrin 43a).  The ancient Jews we know were hypercritical of Jews and the early Christians.  But apparently, even Jesus’ antagonists had to acknowledge that Jesus did some supernatural works but they then dismissed these works as sorcery, magic, or black magic.

          There seems to be ample evidence in the Bible, Roman histories, and Jewish teachings that Jesus engaged in supernatural works.  And yet a growing segment of people today do not believe Jesus ever performed miracles. In the United States, people were asked whether the Bible was the literal word of God, or God inspired words, or myths and legends.  About 20% of those polled believed the Bible was literally the word of God, 30% believed the Bible to be myths, and about 50% believed the Bible was inspired by God. There are some groups within the Christian circles who never speak of miracles because they do not believe the miracles occurred and talking about miracles are the source of embarrassment.

          It seems impossible though it is impossible to speak about Jesus without referring to his miracles, signs, and wonders.  And so it seems we might profit from exploring miracles described for us in the Bible that were so important to the early church, important to be captured in the history books, and important enough to be refuted by Jesus’ adversaries. What can we learn about the miracles of Jesus and what do those insights suggest to us today?

          Let’s begin by acknowledging that the primary sources for the descriptions of the miracles of Jesus come from the gospels. Since historians tend to regard the Gospel of Mark as the earliest of the gospels, let’s look at the first miracle recorded by Mark as found in Chapter 1.  As we enter the scene offered by Mark, it would be important for us to know that Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist.  Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness by Satan.  And Jesus had called his first disciples, Peter and his brother, Andrew, James and his brother, John, all of whom were fisherman. Mark wrote, “21 They [Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James, and John] went to Capernaum” (Mark 1:21a).  Capernaum was a small city on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee and was the hometown of Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

          Mark continued that while in Capernaum, “The Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:21b-22).  How might we think about the observation by Mark that Jesus taught with authority not as the teachers of the law? 

We might think about it by example from our own nation’s history.  On November 19, 1863, a ceremony was held to dedicate the Gettysburg Battlefield.  There were two speakers that day, an orator named Edward Everett and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.  Edward Everett spoke first.  His address was 13,607 words and took him 2 hours to deliver it.  Abraham Lincoln then gave his dedication. Lincoln’s statement was 271 words, and it took Lincoln only a few minutes to deliver it.  Lincoln’s words of “Four score and seven years ago…” instantly became enduring words of authority, history, and hope and they had tremendous impact upon the nation Lincoln governed and still have impact today. Edward Everett’s words are unmemorable and largely lost to history. 

I think that illustration gives us some insight into how Jesus spoke to the people at the synagogue.  We do not know what Jesus said but it seems likely that Jesus spoke only for a few minutes and only a few words.  But there was power in each word about God and about God’s kingdom that impacted each person and caused people to consider sit up and think that something marvelous was happening in that moment.  Jesus words caused people to question the arrogance of their own thinking.

          Consider an example where we do have Jesus’ words from a synagogue teaching offered by Jesus.  Luke wrote, “14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  20 Then he [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He [Jesus] began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  22 All spoke well of him and were amazed” (Luke 4:14-22a).  Jesus spoke just eight words in the synagogue of Nazareth and the people were amazed because Jesus had something important to say. Namely, Jesus said he was God’s long promised Messiah.  Jesus’ words were impactful because his words meant that God had decided the time was right to act to redeem Israel and to begin the process of bringing about the end of time.  Now that is an astounding message that the kingdom of God is near.  This was the essential message Jesus first preached as recorded for us by Mark in verses 15, “15 ‘The time has come,’ he [Jesus] said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”  (Mark 1:15).

          So it seems likely that when Mark wrote that the people were amazed at Jesus’ teachings in the synagogue of Capernaum we can safely conclude that Jesus shared something profound, new, and fresh about the fulfillment of God’s promises and about God coming into the world.  We know that Jesus’ words were immediately profound and deeply spiritual because as Jesus finished, “23 A man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’” (Mark 1:23-24).

          We have this picture that Jesus had spoken and what he said, the authority of his words, astounded the people and then from those in attendance one man stood up and began shouting back at Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?”  We can imagine everyone turned to see who was shouting back at Jesus.  We might imagine the astonished looks on the faces of Peter, Andrew, James, and John that this opening worship service with Jesus might turn into a shouting match.  What on earth was going on?

          Then we realize that the shouting match was not about earthly things, it was about spiritual and supernatural things.  For this interrupter of the worship service shouted an astounding message of authority shout at Jesus, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”  At those words Jesus shouted back, “25 ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” Jesus’ first miracle recorded by Mark was a spiritual battle in which God’s authority was exercised over the forces of Satan and the forces of Satan were vanquished.  At Jesus’ command, the impure spirit obeyed by being silent and then by removing itself from this man.  The oppression of evil was removed from this one man in the presence of many witnesses.  This first miracle of Jesus made it impossible for people to think of Jesus as just a teacher of righteous thought and behavior, or a teacher of a new ethic about love, or a great prophet from God.  This first miracle of Jesus made clear that God kingdom was near, and that evil would have no part in it.  The miracle of exorcism, the removal of an impure spirit, had less to do with authenticating Jesus’ credentials but had more to do with the fact that evil must flee from the presence of God.  Evil cannot hide or remain silent in God’s presence.  Evil must speak out and must come out and will not be found God’s kingdom.

          When it comes to miracles of Jesus, we should care less about how the miracle occurred or where it occurred or who benefited from the miracle and instead, care more about the meaning of the miracle.  We see this emphasis on the meaning of the miracle in what Mark shared after the impure spirit was gone.  “27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits, and they obey him.’ 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee” (Mark 1:27-28).  The people were beginning to show an understanding of what God was doing in their presence and its meaning to their life.  We call this evidence of faith.  The significance of the miracle or any miracle has less to do with the change in the human physical condition and more to do with the faith of the believer.

          Look at the reaction again.  Those who were receptive to the message of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, saw the miracle as a faith building experience that must be shared with astonishment and hope.  The kingdom of God is indeed near and in that kingdom the presence of evil must flee. And to those who had closed themselves off to the teachings of Jesus, as expressed in the writings of the ancient Jews, saw this very same event not as a work within the kingdom but as an act of black magic and sorcery.  The same event was seen in two completely different ways.  One way was the way of salvation.  The other way was the way of sorcery.  The difference rested in the faith of the witness.

          Four of the witnesses to this miracle were Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  Of the eventual 12 apostles, these four would form the inner core of the Twelve. Whenever the list of apostles is given, these four names always appear first on those lists.  What about these witnesses to this supernatural worship service? There was for them a deeper understanding of the kingdom upon which they had entered.

          Mark had recorded for us earlier in this same chapter that when Jesus met these four men Jesus said to them, “17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17). Jesus was calling these men to be intimately part of the kingdom and the work of the kingdom.  When Jesus encountered the impure spirit, Jesus said, “25 ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’” (Mark 1:25).  Jesus was expelling the impurities from the kingdom.  It seems likely that the contrast of Jesus’ behavior was not lost on his disciples.  Within the kingdom of God, those of faith are drawn closer and the impure spirits are expelled.  This is the meaning of the miracle in Capernaum.  We must consider that a miracle involves a visual indication of a deeper reality.

          So what do we learn about miracles and this specific miracle that is useful and helpful for our daily living?  I would suggest two things.  First, the miracles of Jesus were done for specific reasons and that those reasons and second, the telling of the story of those miracles were intended to help us see a deeper reality.  When we look at the opening to the gospel of Mark, we hear three things from Jesus.

  • To all Jesus announced, “15 “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (15)  Many were invited.
  • To the faithful Jesus said, “Come follow me.” (17)  Few were chosen.
  • To the impure Jesus said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” (25) Some were thrown out.

The deeper reality then for us is that all are invited to the kingdom but only some come into faithfulness with Jesus with the words, “Come, follow me.”  Peter, Andrew, James, and John followed Jesus in faith and so we should also answer Jesus’ call.  For the call to follow Jesus is not that he is offering us some alternative among the many love-inspired thought teachings around the world. Instead, Jesus is offering something supernatural.  Jesus is offering salvation and entry to God’s kingdom to those with faith in God. To those who reject the invitation and are either passively or actively opposed to God, there shall be expulsion from God’s presence.  This is the deeper reality of the miracle of Capernaum.

          Jesus explained these points in a parable.  He spoke about a king who hosted a wedding for his son.  The king invited everyone from the highest to the lowest in the land.  But only the humble came at the king’s invitation. The arrogant stayed away from the wedding banquet.  When the wedding hall was full, “The king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He [The King] asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.  13 Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:11-14).  The message is clear.  We must come into the kingdom fully in faith.  Otherwise, we will be expelled.

          You have been chosen to receive the message the Jesus described as “good news,” that you may enter the kingdom of God, into the wedding banquet of the king, dressed in the garment of Christ, appropriate for the occasion.  In that place, in the kingdom of God, we will not be overwhelmed by evil for evil will be removed at the command of Christ.  We can know that this picture of salvation is true because Jesus showed us this picture through a miracle at worship service in a little village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the town called Capernaum.  May we be blessed in believing in the miracle of faith.  Amen and Amen.