By the numbers, next Sunday is the “big Sunday.” But if we celebrate Easter without Palm/Passion Sunday, we’ll never understand the Kingdom of God, or what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is the big Sunday.
- When Kingdoms collide
- A source of our religious anger and judgmental attitudes
- The call to faithful generosity
- Questions for discussion and reflection
By Wednesday night, things were pretty tense among the Twelve. The joyful entry of Jesus on the donkey on Sunday seemed a distant memory. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem from the East, contrasting Pilate’s from the West, dramatically depicted that the Kingdom of God is much different than the Kingdom of Rome.
But Monday and Tuesday were pretty rough, too. Jesus had picked fights with the religious authorities, and like a prophet from old, he challenged the priests. Apparently the Kingdom of God is also different from the Kingdom of Religion.
When the Kingdom of God challenges both the Kingdoms of Rome and Religion, disciples get anxious.
Now they are at the home of Simon the Leper, and the Twelve were thoroughly confused. Jesus is really popular among the people, those disenfranchised by the political and religious elite. He’s so popular that the chief priests and scribes are now looking for a sneaky way to arrest him. And that’s the problem—Jesus is equally unpopular with the powerful.
When the Kingdom of God becomes confusing, when it challenges Rome and Religion, criticizes Barak Obama and Franklin Graham, we are challenged to choose which kingdom we are a part of. We can become angry and judgmental. And in our confusion, anger, and judgment, we don’t recognize true faith.
In walks this woman with the expensive ointment. She anoints Jesus, which triggers a reaction. Her anointing calls together traditional Old Testament anointing of kings, priests, and prophets. It surfaces all the anxiety about Jesus and the Kingdom conflicts he represents. And the Twelve get angry and judgmental.
According to salary.com, a year’s wages for a laborer, the purported value of this woman’s anointing, is $29,400. That’s an extravagant gift. The Twelve scold the woman, for the money “should have been given to the poor.”
I find this passage very challenging. First, it challenges me to be an extravagant giver—if not to the church as the body of Christ, then at least to the poor. Second, it challenges me to wonder why I don’t give extravagantly. I am haunted and inspired by this line from the book Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations: “Giving generously reprioritizes lives and helps people distinguish what is lasting, eternal, and of infinite value from what is temporary, illusory, and untrustworthy.” (p. 114) This passage asks me, Why am I not an extravagant giver?
Sometimes we find it easy to be extravagant. When I attend weddings I often wonder, Who received more money: The rehearsal dinner restaurant, the reception hall, or the church? I am confronted by these questions during memorial services also. They make me think about my priorities.
The Twelve at that table were being challenged about their priorities and their allegiance. They saw an anointing, as for a king, priest, or prophet, but this one was for a burial. Even though Jesus had spoken a lot about his coming death and resurrection, they had refused to hear.
But not this woman. She had listened and heard. She understood his lessons about dying in order to live. She also understood the nature of God’s grace. She gave like a child does—generously, always assuming there is more. Jesus commends her for making an extravagant gift when she could. And her act of faithful generosity would accompany him through his betrayal and torture.
This week we remember God’s extravagant gift to us in Christ. May it inspire us as it did this woman, not only to receive, but to be extravagant in our giving as well.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways do you see the Kingdom of God as represented by Jesus in conflict with the Kingdoms of “Rome” and “Religion” in your life?
- The woman gave a “real” gift to Christ, not just money. In what ways do you give real gifts to Christ, either to the church as the Body of Christ, or to the poor (see Matthew 25:31ff)?
- What makes you religiously angry or judgmental? To what degree do these feelings arise because your allegiance is divided among the Kingdoms?
It’s probably a good thing no one asks me, “When were you saved?” The reason is because I no longer have an answer.
I used to be able to tell you when I was saved. It was in November of 1985 at a youth camp where a short plug of a man from Anchorage shared the gospel. Then it was in February 1996 when a classmate preached a sermon in seminary chapel. Then it was June 1997 when I entered the sacramental covenant of marriage. Then it was March 2005 when I became a father. Most recently it was this past weekend.
If you want to schedule salvation, you first have to quantify grace, because salvation and grace are related.
Ephesians is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Of many famous passages, the first ten verses of chapter two are perhaps the most well-known. Ephesians 2:1-10 summarizes Paul’s understanding of salvation by grace. It offers us three perspectives on grace.
First, grace is the surprising discovery of undeserved mercy. While in the Wilderness on the way to the Land of Promise, the ancient Israelites complained. They didn’t like the food, they wanted more water, and they even began to feel nostalgia for their slave days in Egypt. God finally got fed up with it, and infested their camps with poisonous snakes. They deserved it, I suppose.
Grace came in when God told Moses to make a snake statue. Anyone who looked at the statue after being bitten would be healed and live.
When you have an experience of God’s undeserved mercy, it reorients your life. It causes a conversion. You feel enlightened, have a change of heart and mind, and embark on a new path. When you have a surprising discovery of God’s undeserved mercy, you repent.
That’s what happened to me in November 1985 at camp. And the Ephesians had that same experience. “We all once lived among those who are still disobedient,” the author reminds them. “We were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” But grace intervened and changed all that. And the primary response to such a deliverance is gratitude.
Second, grace is the realization of the divine love that precedes divine judgment. Jesus used the snake statue episode as an analogy of the saving grace that he would bring: “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so also the Son of Man must be lifted up, that all who believe may have eternal life.” The difference between the two is that in Jesus, God wasn’t simply rescuing us from judgment. God was expressing his love: “For God so loved the world,” Jesus goes on to say, “that he sent his only son.”
Ephesians describes it this way: “Out of the great love with which God loves us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, God raised up with Christ.” Unlike the ancient Israelites who first cried out for mercy, what transforms our lives is not our repentance, but rather God’s love which precedes it.
That’s what I experienced in February 1996. In what I still consider the darkest time in my life, a seminary classmate proclaimed a message of God’s prevenient grace. And I realize that despite all the confusion and stupid decisions, I was still a beloved child of God. The primary response to realizing that God’s love precedes judgment is that we have a new identity.
Finally, grace is the manifestation of our gratitude and our new identity in works of love. Ephesians concludes with this charge: “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” When we are grateful for God’s undeserved mercy, and view ourselves through God’s love, we begin looking for and responding to opportunities to express our thanks and live out this new identity.
This past Saturday I had plans. We went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade. We were going to see a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Between these I was going to take a walk, take a nap, and do some work on this sermon. But then I got an email from a woman asking me to visit her mother who was “in her last hours.”
On the way, I prayed for grace to overcome my disappointment and resentment. I prayed that God’s grace would cause Christ to increase and me to decrease, to quote John the Baptist. God answered those prayers by the time I was bedside reading scripture, singing hymns, offering an assurance of pardon, and praying with this dying woman and her grieving daughter.
Grateful for what grace has done in my own life, and because by grace I am a beloved child of God, I set my own plans aside and served this family. And I discovered grace yet again.
Lent is a time when the church invites us to experience the kind of grace described by Ephesians. We can experience it through repentance, as we allow the Spirit to search and convict us of sin. We can experience it through our identity, as we remember that baptism unites us to Christ. And we can experience it through works of love, when we participate in the ongoing ministry of Christ.
During Lent we set aside time for the experience of grace, for the experience of salvation. But through the years I’ve discovered that I can’t tell you when I was saved, because to schedule salvation, you have to quantify grace. And grace by definition can’t be quantified. Ephesians says that it will take, “ages to come for God to show us the immeasurable riches of his grace, in kindness towards us, in Christ.”
Grace can’t be quantified. Salvation can’t be scheduled. It can only be received—one day at a time. May we receive God’s grace today.
Some of us are looking for signs. Some of us are looking for wisdom. The New Testament reminds us that everything we need is found in Jesus Christ.
- Observing religion versus loving God
- Jesus’ exemplification of being spiritual and religious
- The Temple versus the household of faith
- Questions for discussion and reflection
Imagine the scene. There were Jewish pilgrims, up to 100K, descending on Jerusalem for Passover. It was high season for the Temple, and good for all the hospitality businesses. People came making sacrifice and praying. It took weeks of preparation. They had to gather as many priests as were available, bring in animals for sacrifices, and the bankers had to provide money-changers.
There were many political and religious tensions forty-six years in the making, for the scene was the second temple of Herod the Great, a man appointed by Rome to be King of the Jews, but who took on the task of rebuilding and expanding the Temple to a scale never before seen.
Forty-six years is a long time. Forty-six years of religious hope, of waiting for deliverance, of sacrifices and prayers. Forty-six years in a row of waiting for next year in Jerusalem. Forty-six years of trying to keep the faith. Maybe you have spent forty-six years, or longer, trying to make religion work. . .
What the Temple cleansing in John teaches us is to not confuse religion with relationship.
The law required Passover. It included sacrifices, and required purity. That means that animal venders and money-changers were necessary. As Jesus watched, people’s devotion was marginalized by religiosity. They came to pray, to make sacrifice, and to remember Passover, but they were distracted by commerce. To get a sense of what he felt, just think back to Christmas. . .
Where there was supposed to be temple, Jesus saw a marketplace. Religion is supposed to be personal; it is supposed to be relational. The “spiritual but not religious” crowd gets this. But Jesus was both: he was spiritual and religious. It can be done; Jesus shows us how.
He refers to the Temple as “his Father’s house”: “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace.” To Jesus, the faithful gather in a house, we are family; we are siblings of the same parentage. Jesus invites us to the household of faith, not just to the Temple. The Temple is church attendance; the household is worship. The Temple is only law-keeping; the household is love for one another. The Temple is religion only; the household is relationship.
Lent is traditionally observed with fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. I am fasting lunch—spending the time praying and donating the saved money to a charitable cause. But this week I broke my fast to eat lunch with my children. This is in the spirit of Jesus, who invites us not just to the observance of laws, but also to love. He said the greatest law is love. Relationships trump religiosity—it is better to have lunch with one’s children than to fast.
If our religion doesn’t love, it isn’t Christian. It might be lawful. It might even be scriptural. But if it isn’t loving, it’s a Temple in need of cleansing.
If you’ve spent your whole life building a Temple, Jesus is inviting you to his Father’s house. If you’ve depended on religion and religious observance for your salvation, Jesus invites you to relationship. The Christian life is one of laws and love, religion and spirituality.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- In what ways has your Christian life been more characterized by Temple religion than household worship?
- In what ways have you been “building a Temple” in your religious life instead of being part of a household of faith? What do you need to do to dismantle the Temple?
- Is your Christianity more about observing laws, or showing love to others? How can you bring balance or perspective to the relationship between laws and love?
God has made a promise, and we have been given a choice. And how we choose, makes all the difference in whether or not we will experience salvation in this life.
- Why we assume the presence of suffering means the presence of sin
- Ways we try to answer the question of suffering
- The answer according to Paul
- How Lent can give us hope during suffering
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why is this happening to me?” . . . “What have I done to deserve this?” It’s a human impulse to attribute suffering to some sin. Job’s friends spent 34 chapters trying to convince him of this. And there’s some biblical logic to it.
In Romans 1-3 Paul states that everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, has the law, whether on tablets or on conscience. And in Romans 4 he writes, “Where there is no law, neither is there violation”—in other words, we all know we break the law. He also says, “The law brings wrath”—meaning we all know we’re deserving of judgment. The final step is that we equate suffering with judgment.
We have various responses the idea that our suffering is the result of some sin. One natural response is to begin searching for the sin. After we do this for a while we figure it’s a lost cause, which leads to we’re a lost cause, which leads to religion and God being lost causes also. A third response is that we try to avoid further suffering by doing better living up to the law next time.
We’re trying to answer our experience of suffering. We’re trying to justify our existence. And if not by naming sin and repentance—which is John the Baptist’s answer—then by adherence to the law—which is the Pharisees’ answer. And if by neither of those, then by our personal achievement or comparison with others—which is really just John and the Pharisees in secular clothing.
Paul offers a different answer. He wrote Romans in part to reunite Jews and Gentiles in the church. So he draws on shared experiences—like the judgment of the law. And he uses an analogy applicable to Jews and Gentiles—the paternity of Abraham, who was promised to become, “The father of many nations”—note, it is plural.
All this sets up Paul’s main point, which is that before Abraham had the law, he had faith. Abram and Sarai were already old when the promise came—too old to have children, and too barren. As a childless couple, they suffered, and they must have despaired over their existence. They had no hope of justification.
Then God’s promise came—progeny too numerous to count. And always with a promise comes a choice—believe it, or not. “Abraham believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” Paul quotes.
What did Abraham believe? He believed that God would be faithful to his promise, despite age, barrenness, decades of disappointment, social stigma, and hearing how “impossible” it was. He believed that all their suffering did not ultimately jeopardize their existence. He believed that only God, not anything he and Sarah could or couldn’t do, justified his life. He believed in “the presence of the God who gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Indeed they would have a child.
It’s hard to believe God’s promises, especially in the midst of suffering. We still want to blame it on sin. We still want to overcome it ourselves. This maintains our sense of control. Just ask Peter.
Jesus has predicted his own suffering and promised his justification by rising on the third day. Peter couldn’t believe it. Maybe it was the immensity of the suffering, or overconfidence in his own abilities, but Peter didn’t share the faith of Abraham. Some of us find it hard to believe for the same reasons.
But suffering and our various responses to it doesn’t have to lead us to sin or distance us from God. Lent is a time to acknowledge our suffering. This is why we “give something up.” It’s a way of reminding ourselves of Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
Lent is also a time to recognize that much of our suffering results because we are trying to justify ourselves. We suffer by trying to live up to the law. We suffer by proving our worth another way. But we can’t justify ourselves. We’ll always fall short of the attempt to make our existence meaningful. This is why, “Jesus was handed over to death for our trespasses.” Our attempts to justify ourselves have to be denied, must take up the cross, and instead follow Jesus.
Lent is also at time to remember God’s answer to suffering, to remember that Jesus’ suffering was followed by resurrection. A time to remember that, “Christ was raised for our justification.” Our lives are justified in Christ. The next chapter in Romans begins, “We have peace with God, and hope in our suffering.”
Lent invites us to share the faith of Abraham, and also the faith of Jesus, that our lives matter, are righteous, are justified, because of what God says about us in Christ—that we are God’s beloved and that with us God is well-pleased—and not because of anything else. The God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, is with us also.
God of Abraham and Sarah, you promised life beyond measure to them despite every appearance that it could be true. It took another 25 years after that initial promise for their child to be born. It seems so long to us sometimes, for us to see the fulfillment of your promises. We are often like Peter, for whom even three days was too long to wait. We pray this morning, that you will strengthen us in our hope and faith, as you did for Abraham, especially during Lent as we try to follow Jesus more closely, remembering his suffering death for our trespasses, and as we anticipate celebrating his resurrection for our justification. Grant us a share in the faith of Abraham and Sarah, that we may experience the abundance of life in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Here’s a question pertinent to this first week in Lent: Why has baptism fallen on such hard times, especially since historically it has figured prominently in the church from the beginning?
- The relationship of Baptism to Lent
- One New Testament theology of baptism
- Hidden meanings in Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism
- Four first steps we can take this week to get into Lent
Lent is the liturgical season lasting 40 days preceding Easter. On the calendar, it consumes 46 days because Lent includes fasting, and Sundays are not counted as fast days. Yes, this means that whatever you “gave up” for Lent is still fair game on Sundays. You’re welcome.
Lent is modeled after Jesus’ wilderness sojourn after his baptism. It originally emerged as the time for preparation for converts to Christianity before baptism. Today it is generally a time for the entire church to rededicate itself to baptism. However one looks at it, Lent is oriented around baptism.
The letter known as 1 Peter provides an example of the importance of baptism in the New Testament church. The author describes a relationship between baptism and the great flood of Noah’s time. He views baptism from three perspectives. First, God’s perspective—the waters of flood and baptism occasion the washing of sin. Second, Noah’s perspective—the waters of flood and baptism save us. Finally, there is the author’s perspective, which is that these waters offer us an opportunity to “appeal to God for a good conscience” on the basis of the resurrection of Christ.
Probably what the author is referring to in this third perspective is that, on account of the resurrected Christ’s ongoing priestly ministry of mediation on our behalf, we have confidence to approach God without fear regarding our sin. So baptism, for the author of 1 Peter means all three: the cleansing of sin, securing our salvation, through X’s resurrection.
One would assume that Jesus’ own baptism would be the foundational model for the church’s practice. As the tradition around Jesus and baptism evolved, this certainly proves true. But how this came to be would be a bit of a mystery if all we had was the first and earliest Gospel account of the event, namely Mark’s.
Mark doesn’t give us much compared other Gospels. Whereas Luke only casually mentions Jesus’ baptism, Matthew gives us dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist, and John gives us a long testimony from John the Baptist.
Mark’s account begins by informing us that John’s baptism is one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that numerous people came confessing sin and were baptized in the Jordan river. Then Jesus is baptized. Period.
Even after Jesus’ baptism, Mark is relatively terse. With Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us Jesus was driven to the wilderness by the Spirit and tempted by Satan. But unlike Matthew and Luke, he doesn’t tell us the content of those temptations. Mark simply says he was “in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”
Then after John’s arrest, Mark says Jesus comes to Galilee and finally gives us a summary statement of Jesus’ message: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.”
Since baptism became so important, why is Mark so stingy? Perhaps it’s because he’s written a short gospel and wants you to read it. Maybe he realizes that baptism is only the beginning, not the arrival, and what matters is living it out. Or maybe like other initiation rites, Mark is keeping it a secret. Only the insiders are allowed to know what happens when an individual is removed from her society for a time, given a new identity through some kind of trial, and then reintroduced as a changed person.
Or maybe there’s more to Mark’s account than meets the eye. Could Mark have hidden some meanings into his account of Jesus’ baptism? If so, maybe Mark’s hidden meanings can give us a clue how to observe Lent.
Consider the heavenly proclamation, which begins, “You are my son, the Beloved.” It’s a reference to Psalm 2, in which God adopts the king of Israel as a son. The point there is that, while other kings are waging war and expanding territory and wealth through military might, the king adopted by God is different. And thus the kingdom of God is also different from the kingdoms of this world.
Then the voice says, “With you I am well-pleased.” This is an allusion to Isaiah 42, the first of the so-called “Servant Songs.” In these lyrics we learn what pleases God most; it is a love for others that results in sacrificial service on their behalf, especially when that service is offered in faithful obedience to God.
Jesus hears these words, Mark tells us, “just as he was coming up out of the water.” So baptism identifies Jesus as the king blessed by God to inaugurate the kingdom of God. But not only does baptism identify Jesus, it identifies us. When we are baptized, we become part of the kingdom. We become, like Jesus, one of the servants of God and of the world.
This is the practical meaning of Jesus’ 4-fold invitation: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near, repent, and believe.” That the time is fulfilled means that God’s promise is being fulfilled. All our yearnings are being fulfilled. That the kingdom is near, a spatial declaration, might just as well be heard as a chronological one that the kingdom is now. With Jesus’ presence, the kingdom has come. Since this is the case, we are commanded to forsake other kingdoms (“repent”) and live from now on in God’s kingdom (“believe”).
And the rest of the Gospel of Mark shows us what this means. It shows us how to do this through the example of Jesus Christ.
So here are some first steps we can take together as we begin our Lenten journey. 1. We can start by remembering 1 Peter’s teaching on baptism—that it cleanses us from sin, that it represents God’s saving of us, and that the resurrected Christ is with us.
- We can remember God’s kingdom—that God is king and not someone else, and that God’s kingdom endures and not the others.
- We can remember that we are adopted into this kingdom through our own baptism. What is said of Jesus is true of us: “We are God’s beloved.”
- We can remember we are called to delight God, just like Jesus was and did, by serving others.
As we remember these truths, we rededicate ourselves to the baptismal life. We engage the season of Lent. And after these “forty days,” we will more meaningfully receive the resurrected Christ anew come Easter.
One of the reasons religion has fallen out of favor is because it is so out of sync with our culture, which prefers replacement over transformation.
- Why replacement isn’t always the best answer
- How knowing the narrative transforms us
- That transformation results from listening to Jesus
- Questions for discussion or reflection
Across the street from me are two brand new houses. They are huge, especially compared to the tiny ranch houses they replaced. The marketing material asks this enticing question: “Want to live in an historic and established neighborhood, but not deal with the troubles of a 100 year old house?”
I live in one of those 100 year old houses, and I can tell you I’ve often thought about replacing it. That’s the impulse of our culture. Even our most recent technological tools are designed with planned obsolescence in mind—no sooner are they introduced to the market than their replacements are in production.
Some things can be replaced. Others cannot. It’s essential that we can tell the difference. For if we can’t tell the difference, we’ll spend a lot of our lives trying to replace things that really aren’t designed for replacement. We’ll perpetually chase the dream job. We’ll cycle through challenging relationships. We’ll move from the church that makes us uncomfortable because it emphasizes grace and giving too often.
We as people are not designed for replacement. We’re designed for transformation. And many of the things we try to replace are only delaying the transformation they’re put in our lives to achieve.
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, Elijah and Moses appeared to them also. Elijah is the great prophet who was promised to return. Moses is the great liberator and law-giver. These are people and periods from the past that were not forgotten, but when seen in relation to Jesus, they were transformed.
I’m presently reading some books on pastoral ministry, looking ahead, trying to figure out more specifically where is God calling me. I’m being challenged in many ways, and looking back at my professional ministry. I can’t believe some of my earliest sermons. My bookshelves are packed with flawed leadership paradigms. This kind of juxtaposition of my past with my future confronts me with a choice.
I can try to replace myself as a pastor—find a new paradigm, or what most pastors do—a new church. I can become paralyzed by regret or embarrassment. Or I can find God working in my past to transform me as a person. I can let go of the past without forgetting it.
Letting go of the past without forgetting it is possible because we’re designed not for replacement, but for transformation. And we’re designed this way because our designer is one who likes to transform.
Just look at the narrative. Moses parted the Red Sea. Elijah parted the Jordan. Then Elijah’s successor also parted the Jordan. In God’s narrative, there are always new prophets, but they share a common story. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in the line of Moses and Elijah. And they could recognize this only because they knew the narrative—letting go without forgetting.
How well do you know the narrative? One of the transformations I get to see is how money is transformed into ministry. Day by day I get to see how the donations to the church transform into care and hope for others. Because I know the narrative, I see the transformation. And I know the narrative because I’m involved in it.
Getting involved can be a scary thing. On the mountain, the disciples were “terrified.” Transformation is scary because it means things change. Peter just wants it all to stop—“Let’s build shrines!” he says.
Our lives can’t be transformed without experiencing change. This is one reason we prefer replacement—it makes us feel like we’re in control. But the transformation God intends requires exactly our being OUT of control. We can ask God to stop it like Peter did. But God has a different answer.
God’s answer is to listen to Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” In the transformation of our lives, we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by others that Jesus has invited, like the three disciples, to the mountain. We’re surrounded by our tradition, symbolized by Moses and Elijah. But mostly we’re not alone because Jesus is there.
Jesus makes our transformation bearable. He is with us. We are with God’s beloved. These are the words of baptism—which reminds us that we also are God’s beloved. Even though it’s scary, even though we’re out of control, when we do as God says and listen to Jesus, we become part of the narrative of God’s beloved people.
And what does Jesus say to us? On the way down from the mountain, Jesus told his disciples to wait until the Son of Man rises from the dead before they say anything. The transformation of our lives is a process. It requires faith and patience. We give control over to God and we have to wait.
Jesus’ transfiguration was a preview of his resurrection—and that’s what we’re waiting for. Our transformation is complete only in resurrection. It starts sometime in our lives—like with the disciples on the mountain—but like they did, we have to wait to understand it fully.
As we prepare to enter Lent, Mark invites us to transformation. In Lent, Jesus calls us up the mountain, to be apart. In Lent, we remember the narrative. In Lent, even though a little scary, we surrender control to God.
Jesus promises not to replace us, but to transform us. And because the Son of Man has risen from the dead, he is able to do it. Let us listen to Jesus this Lent.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Are there any things in your life that God is asking you to let go of, but not to forget?
- As you look back on your life, identify some things you tried to replace but that kept coming back. Could these indicate opportunities not for replacement, but for transformation?
- How do you deal with the scariness of getting involved with God’s narrative? How do you deal with listening to Jesus when it means giving up control?
- Who are the James and Johns in your Peter life—those companions on the journey that assure you you’re not alone in your transformation? What traditions are meaningful to you in this same sense?
Many of us believe that God isn’t powerful enough to solve our problems, or that God simply doesn’t care. Today’s lectionary readings testify to a different kind of faith.
- How Isaiah and the Psalm answer the human complaint that God isn’t involved
- How Jesus fulfills the vision of Isaiah and the Psalm
- What faith looks like on the basis of these passages
- Questions for discussion or reflection
The people of Isaiah’s time were overwhelmed with sorrow. Their nation had been overrun by the Babylonians, their capital city Jerusalem destroyed and the Temple razed, and their prominent citizens had been exiled to foreign lands. By the time Isaiah 40 was written, the refrain heard by the prophet from the people was, “Our way is hidden from the LORD!”
How often have we felt this way? The people of Isaiah’s time might have thought that God can’t do anything about my problems—they’re too big. Or they thought God has the power, but just doesn’t care.
In his answer to this complaint, Isaiah affirms that compared to God, we are indeed like grasshoppers. God does, after all, bring out the stars every night. In the words of the Psalm, “God is great, abundant in power, and his understanding is beyond measure!” So with regards to whether God can address our biggest concerns, Isaiah and the Psalm say that God does have the power to do something.
The people of Capernaum witnessed God’s power working through Jesus. When Jesus cast out the demon in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Mark tells us the people were “amazed.” They said to one another, “He teaches with authority, and even demons obey him!”
Then Jesus shows up at Simon’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed. It’s hard to imagine a more marginal character in this scene. She is a woman in a patriarchal culture, she is in bed with a fever, and she is a mother-in-law guest in her son-in-law’s house.
She might have felt like Isaiah’s Exiles. She may have been thinking, “God may be powerful, but he’s not interested in me. This Jesus may heal a religious man in the synagogue, but he won’t bother with me. Jesus might heal for publicity’s sake, but I’m no celebrity. God probably is powerful, but my concerns are too small.” If she knew Isaiah, she would have quoted, “My way is hidden from the LORD.”
Back in his time, Isaiah reminded the Exiles that, “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” He gives them the image of a young athlete who will eventually tire and fail, but promises that, “Those who wait for the LORD will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, the shall walk and not faint.”
Just so, Jesus came to Simon’s mother-in-law. He reaches out and takes her hand. He lifts her up. And what little her society allowed her to offer in response, she does. She begins to serve them.
Mark tells us at sundown, many others came to the house. Sundown begins a new day, the Sabbath is over, but Jesus is still proclaiming a message of healing. The people came with various dis-eases, and Mark tells us Jesus cured “many,” but not all. Others apparently had to continue waiting. The difference now is that they wait with hope.
Many of us are awaiting a new day. We would like the day we’re in to end. We would like Jesus to come into our Monday to Saturday lives, into the problems that are overwhelming to us, or into our “God is too big, mine are too small” problems.
Like Isaiah, Psalm 147 praises God for bringing out the stars, but also assures us: “God heals the broken hearted, and binds up their wounds.” “The LORD lifts up the downtrodden.” God even gives animals their food, so the Psalm, like Isaiah, calls us to faith and hope in God.
The next morning Jesus goes in to the darkness to a deserted place and prays. He “waits on God” to use Isaiah’s words. He puts his trust and hope in God to use the Psalm’s words. Then Simon comes to find him, to put him back to work. There are a lot more people in Capernaum who need healing.
But Jesus knows there are people in the neighboring towns also. So like the God who cares for the brokenhearted, like the Savior who heals the mother-in-law, Jesus goes to them, takes their hands, lifts them up, and heals them also.
This morning your problems might be as big as the demon possessed man. Or they might be as small as a fever. Or they might be in the neighboring towns, waiting for Jesus to arrive.
Mark wants you to know that the God of Isaiah and the Psalms has come in Jesus Christ. And he urges us that, when Jesus arrives in our synagogue, or house, or town, may he find us waiting.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Share a time when you thought, like Isaiah or Simon’s mother-in-law, “My way is hidden from God.” How did that situation finally resolve?
- As you think about a current challenge in your life, where would it be in this story? Is it in the Synagogue, that is, a big problem like the demon-possessed man that only God can solve? Is it more mundane like the fever suffered by the mother-in-law? Are you one who is waiting for resolution, like those in Capernaum who were not healed? Or is it in a neighboring town, that is, still waiting for Jesus to arrive?
- Jesus was very deliberate about prayer—he woke up early and went to a solitary place. How focused is your time of prayer? What might Mark be trying to teach us about prayer with this scene?