The Joyful New

I’m back from vacation! I had a great trip to the Great Northwest – but I’m also glad to be back.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 2:18-22. This text is in the midst of a grouping of religious controversies that confront Jesus in his early ministry. Jesus, from the get go, was upending religious expectations left and right.

Israel’s expectation for who the messiah would be judging and what the messiah would be doing were pretty straightforward. Messiah will come to dispense judgement to the Roman Empire, to condemn those who didn’t adhere to the law of Moses and command righteousness without reserve.

And then there was Jesus. What were they to make of this rabbi? He hangs out with the wrong crowd, he seems to only condemn religious people while giving the riff-raff a new start. He just didn’t meet people’s expectations.

That was true of our text on Sunday. The disciples of John the Baptist fasted regularly while awaiting the arrival of God’s kingdom. The Pharisees fasted regularly to show how sincerely they longed for the end of exile…and it didn’t hurt that it made them look really religiously pious.

When Jesus is asked why he and his disciples don’t fast (a question posed right after Jesus was at a dinner party with disreputable people), the people are merely expressing that he is not meeting their spiritual standards. Fasting was only required in the Old Testament for the Day of Atonement. This wan’t about Mosaic commands, this was about religious expectations.

  • Why do you think Jesus answered their question about fasting with the imagery of a wedding? How does v 20 help us understand that Jesus isn’t opposed to fasting? What religious standards have you felt pressured by? How have you found yourself pressuring others to meet a standard you have set?

The two further explanations by way of parable are the new cloth and new wine-skin pictures. New cloth, in shrinking, would tear away from old, pre-shrunken fabric. An old leather, brittle wine-skin would tear open during the expansion of fermentation.

Jesus’ point is straightforward – he didn’t come to reform something old but to establish something new.

  • What does this mean to our relationship with the Old Testament Law? How do we understand the purpose and value of the Old Testament?

Anyway – hope to see you on Sunday!

The Power of Forgiveness

“As high as heaven is over the earth,
    so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrise is from sunset,
   he has separated us from our sins. ” ~ Psalm 103

At the core of the Christian hope, there is the promise of forgiveness from God. Sometimes I wonder if we have become so acquainted with with that truth that it’s impact gets dulled. It can easily happen. That’s why I love revisiting the gospels, because the core truths that our faith is formed around are ready to be apprehended afresh with every reading.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 2:1-12 which is the account of a paralyzed man being healed by Jesus, but is also a story that highlights the power of divine forgiveness.

The house is packed, not one more person can be squeezed in. Locals look up and down the street at the crowds who have descended on their tiny village to hear and see the young Rabbi.

Four men enter the fray, carrying a paralyzed man on a make-shift stretcher, asking people to make way to they can get through. A few people oblige, but the mass of humanity is too thick and progress comes to a complete stop. One of the four looks at the outside stairs of the house they are trying to enter.

  • What do are your thoughts about these four men? Why do you suppose they are so persistent? Where are they trying to take their friend?
  • If we imagine a symbolic meaning to their story, what lesson can we, the church, learn from these four men about our own priorities?
  • What can tearing up a roof in order to get someone close to Jesus teach us about our mission?

After they lower the man down to Jesus, the story takes a rather strange turn. Instead of immediately healing the man, Jesus by begins declaring his sins forgiven by God.

  • Why do you think Jesus declared forgiveness before healing the man?
  • What do you suppose get the religious leaders angry about this? What did they infer from this declaration?
  • The inward healing of forgiveness is something unseen and immeasurable – the outward healing of the man’s limbs was something everyone could observe. In what way does that help us to understand Jesus’ actions here?

I really love this story – Hope to see you Sunday!

Unexpected Authority

I don’t know. Why is it whenever I write the word “authority” I hear Cartman’s voice in my head commanding my respect? It’s the hazards of keeping up with popular culture I suppose.

Whenever we think of a king or government exercising authority, what usually comes to mind? Often, we think of violence or even battle. We’re going to see a battle of sorts in our text this Sunday as we read Mark 1:21-34 – albeit, it’s not much of a battle. The authority of God’s kingdom leaves very little room for resistance.

  • In the story, what is it that first gets the people amazed about Jesus?
  • What do you think the people mean by Jesus teaching with “authority”?
  • Why do you suppose they didn’t recognize that sort of authority in the teachers of the law?

The story gets really exciting when someone erupts with squawking and a demonic spirit begins speaking through a person to confront Jesus.

  • What are your thoughts about demons and the spiritual world?
  • Why do you think the demonic entity identified Jesus’ hometown?
  • Why do you think Jesus cut the demon short? What can we infer from that about our own focus in ministry?

For those who care, there’s a chiastic structure to v21-28

Jesus comes to the synagogue

Jesus teaches

People are amazed at his authority

Jesus confronts a demon

People are amazed at his authority

Jesus leaves the synagogue

After the public setting of the synagogue we move the private setting of Jesus’ home. Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever and Jesus heals her. Word gets out and suddenly people are showing up in droves to be healed at Pete’s house. Not at the synagogue, isn’t that interesting?

  • How do you feel about the fact that Pete’s mother-in-law gets right to work, serving? Follow the link to the definition of that word. Look at the other passages where that word is used (the verse count is to the right of the definition).
  • How might we deduce something about the nature of being Christ’s follower from that?

Hope to see you Sunday!

The Good News

Jim Gaffigan has a stand-up routine from years ago where he declares: “I’m a vegetarian…it’s just that I eat beef and pork and chicken…but not fish because that’s disgusting”. It’s humorous because it cuts across the very definition of vegetarianism. The character he presents clearly doesn’t understand what it means to be a vegetarian.

It strikes me sometimes that a lot of Christians are like that when it comes to the Gospel – the Good News. A lot of times if I ask the question: “What is the Gospel?”, I get a variation on the idea that Jesus died to save us from our sins so that we can go to heaven and not hell when we die. It’s not that I disagree with any of that – but I’m not sure that really captures the heart of what the Good News really is because the focus is placed on what happens after this life.

This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 1:14-20 as we continue going through that account of Jesus.

In v14, we abruptly find out that John the Baptist has been arrested and Jesus has started publicly announcing God’s Good News. We’ve noted before that the word euangelion,  εὐαγγέλια, was not unique to Christianity. It was a word used to announce good news from Caesar, or announce his birthday, or declare a victory in battle.

What does Jesus say that sets the Good News that He preaches apart from the good news of Caesar? Who is the center and focus of this Good News?

In v 15, Jesus explains what the Good News is and what our response should be. Notice the words he’s saying: The time has COME, The Kingdom of God is NEAR, REPENT and BELIEVE. Follow the links on those words and consider what they mean.

Using the definition of the Greek words, write what Jesus is saying in your own words.

Read Daniel 2, especially v 44  – What do you think the people of Galilee were hearing when they heard the Good News proclaimed by Jesus?

When Jesus calls his first disciples in v16-20, they respond immediately.

What does their response tell us about what hearing the Good News demands of us?

What would it look like in our own lives to follow this example of Peter, Andrew, James and John? How would you describe the priorities their response symbolizes?

There have been lingering questions about why these guys would have responded so quickly and decisively. I had a whole section in my teaching that I had to remove because it would have made it run too long…but I copied it and I’ll paste it here, in case you’re interested. It helps round out the oppressive economic picture of that time and place, which helps us see why these guys may have responded like they did. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. Anyway, here it is:

“Now, people have gotten cynical about this section, wondering about the abruptness of it – ‘what would make these guys respond so quickly to a rabbi like this?’ But, there ARE historical factors here… we need to understand the situation these guys were in.

We tend to think of these fishermen from the standpoint of a free-market, capitalist society, like WE live in. We imagine a nice little family business where they catch fish for themselves and sell the surplus to the local market. We view them as middle-class, blue collar Joes.

 But we’re wrong. There was no free-market capitalism in the world run by the Roman Empire. Rome ruled the known world – and sure, they brought roads and aqueducts and peace to the region…but they also brought the demands of the Roman elite from Caesar at the top to his agents and governors like Herod Antipas, the ruler over the Galilee region, and all the layers of bureaucracy in between. The sea of Galilee was no longer localized as a source dietary staples for the people who lived there – the sea of Galilee belonged to Caesar – nobody was going to fish there unless he approved it. Fishing leases were required, and taxes and tolls for ports were exorbitant.

Everyone was taking a cut of both the fish AND any potential profit to be made from them.

So local fishermen found themselves in an economic free-fall – they were at the bottom of this elaborate financial hierarchy. They had a trade that had been handed down through generations but now were tantamount to slave-labor …they had no hope of escape from this economic oppression.

Along comes a Rabbi who declares the time has come for God’s kingdom to break in on things. And they’re thinking…well, what would they be thinking, what might they have imagined?

‘This is IT, finally we’ll be free from our oppression and there will be justice.’

 They were right, but not the way the expected.”

 

Sonship and Struggles

This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 1:9-13, which becomes a sort of cosmic “good news/bad news” scenario. It’s not really bad news, but it’s a strange juxtaposition of a glorious moment immediately followed by a time of hardship.

Life has a way of following that pattern though.

As you may recall, the theme of Mark’s gospel is the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah – the Divine King and His conquest. What a Divine King’s conquest looks like is something we may picture a certain way, which Mark works to dismantle. As soon as Jesus appears in our text, he does something very strange indeed. He is baptized by John.

Baptism was the ritual John was calling the people to submit to as a demonstration of their repentance and renewal in God.

Why do you think Jesus took his turn with all the other people there and underwent this ritual? What does it tell us about the nature of this Divine King?

After his baptism, the fabric of reality is torn open and a glimpse is given to God’s reality – and from that reality (heaven) the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and God’s voice speaks calling Jesus His beloved Son. This is a passage that gives a tantalizing glance at the mystery of God’s Triune nature.

How do you see three distinct Divine personalities and actions in this passage?

Jesus, as Messiah, stands as representative of all the human race. He entered our condition in order to bring us into His condition. What is true of Jesus is true of those who believe in and follow Him.

What do you believe the Father declares about you?  Can you imagine God saying to you: “You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Let that run through your mind, and put your own name in that sentence. What is your reaction to that?

Right on the heels of that amazing experience, Jesus is pushed out into the desert to face the struggles of temptation. As I said, good news/bad news. Mark is very brief in his description, but we get enough of the picture of the devil and wild beasts that we know this was no comfortable spa retreat Jesus went to.

How do you think the previous experience at His baptism prepared Jesus for this part of his journey? What sort of “spiritual desert experiences” have you had in your life of following Christ? What, if anything, did you learn from them?

Mark – Introduction; This is the Good News

This Sunday we will begin a new study in the Gospel of Mark. I am someone who believes that, as the church, it’s important to revisit the life and teachings of Jesus, just to be sure we’re tracking properly. The Gospel of mark is the shortest of the synoptic gospels, and according to surveys, the least popular of all of them. I think that’s a shame. Mark rocks, in my opinion.

As we begin this study, we’ll be reading chapter 1:1-8. Right off the bat, in the very first verse, we are confronted with several ideas which need to be explored. The Good News, Messiah and Son of God. We’ll be looking at the historic and religious contexts of those words – but let me suggest that to really get a good primer on the concept of Messiah, you can watch The Bible Project’s video on that subject: The Bible Project

How would you explain what the Good News about Jesus the Messiah is?

The writer of Mark wastes no time in getting us into the action. V2-3 introduces us to the expectations of Israel to set the stage. He quotes from Isaiah and Malachi passages that were meant to comfort the Jewish people who had gone into Babylonian exile that the Lord would return to his temple one day. God gave them a sign to look for – a messenger would come and prepare the way for the Lord’s appearance.

Why do you think it was important to connect John the Baptist with the promised sign? How can this encourage us about trusting God’s promises?

In v4-6 John is described, and he is one odd dude. He definitely didn’t follow the advice of today’s experts on how to attract people to your movement.

What does John’s dress, diet and location speak of to you? Why do you think people were so attracted to John’s message? What can we learn from that about our own ministry and church?

When John speaks in v7-8, he has a singular topic in view. Jesus. John is almost over-the-top in trying to pronounce the distinction and superiority of the coming Messiah.

In what ways can we follow his example? As we seek to minister God’s love to people, how can we keep our focus on Jesus without becoming self-depreciating? What do you believe John was describing when he said Jesus would baptize withe the Holy Spirit?

I’m really stoked to get back to posting in Wonderwhat! I’m looking forward to this study – I hope you’ll come to love Mark as much as I do! See you Sunday!

 

The Story Goes On

So – this is our final Sunday studying the book of Romans. We’ve been at this for 9 months – with one month off due to a certain Michael. This Sunday we’ll be reading the whole of Romans 16 as Paul gives his final greetings, warning and blessing.

A lot of people skip through this long list of names Paul recites…around 26 in all. I love them though – they help to connect this work to real people; people like you and I who had to work through the “deliciously chewy theology” of this letter (as N.T. Wright puts it). Phoebe is introduced and is likely the person delivering the letter. Most likely, she would be the one reading the letter to the congregation and answering questions they may have or explaining bits along the way.

Priscilla and Aquilla are familiar names which you can read about in Acts 18.

Interestingly, 10 of the people named by Paul and described as co-laborers and equals in ministry are women. The most controversial of those is Junia. Google her name and read some of the articles. I’ll wait. …………………….. It’s pretty intense, isn’t it? There is a lot to think about when it comes to this ancient and mysterious woman of God. I know she’s changed my thinking a lot.

Several of the people greeted are in the households of people we know in Roman history. Narcissus was probably the same one from history who was close to Emperor Claudius. Aristobulus was a Jewish name associated with a Jewish king of Israel’s inter-testament history. It’s unlikely these two were believers – Paul greets the householdof these men – most probably household slaves.

What can we infer from Paul extolling the ministry and co-equality of women and slaves in the midst of ancient Rome? How does it inform our understanding of God’s social economy in the sphere of his kingdom?

In v16-20 Paul warns us about teachers who cause divisions by teaching things contrary to what they’ve already learned. What does he say to do concerning them? How would we apply that to our present world of teachers and churches?

Paul finishes off his letter with a blessing and a reminder (v26) that this is an age-old, ongoing story, this gospel we’ve embraced. Let’s determine to allow the Story to go on through us! Hope to see you Sunday!