The Heart of God vs the Hardened Heart

There’s a scene from the first Incredibles movie that reminds me of the text we’ll be reading this Sunday. Mr. Incredible is a superhero forced into retirement who had taken on a job as an insurance salesman. He keeps looking after his customers best interests, which gets him called into his boss’s office. Rather than describe the scene to you – let me just put it here for you to watch:

This Sunday we’ll be reading Mark 3:1-6 in our study of this gospel.
Do you see the parallels between a puny and petty boss trying to exert authority over a superhero?

As you read this passage, think about the contrasts. Who is Jesus looking at? Who are the religious leaders looking at? Following that, contemplate this question: what is the main concern of the religious leaders and what is the main concern of Jesus?

Answering those questions will unlock the lessons of this text.

What is it about the religious leaders that made Jesus both angry and sad? How does Jesus’ reaction to this help us to identify the priorities God intends for us to live by?

In a fast changing world we, as followers of Christ, often struggle to know how we interface our Christian values with this morally fluid society. Sometimes we’ve fallen into the same snare that the Pharisees did. In what ways has the church been blinded by a commitment to what might be considered necessary rules that we miss God’s overarching value of compassion? How can we keep that from happening while still holding to a conviction?

Those are the topics we’ll consider – it should be a thought provoking text to explore!

Priorities

There is a strange tension between the letter and the spirit of a law.

The “letter of the law” refers to how a law is spelled out in the penal code, vehicle code etc. The “spirit of the law” is the reasoning behind why the law was enacted; the original intent for its institution. It is possible to violate the “letter of the law” but not the “spirit of the law”. In such cases, law enforcement and prosecutors hopefully use discretion and don’t usually enforce violations of the “letter of the law” as long as the “spirit” wasn’t violated.

A sign may be posted in the park which says “no vehicles allowed”. That’s the letter of the law. The intent, however, is to prohibit large, motorized vehicles from entering. If a person in a wheelchair wants to enter the park, it may technically violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Something along those lines is happening in our text for this Sunday as we continue our study in Mark. We’ll be finishing chapter 2, reading v 23-28.

Why do you think the Pharisees accused the disciples of “harvesting” on the Sabbath? Apply the letter versus the spirit of the law principle here. Do you think it was God’s original intent to keep people hungry on the day of rest?

The story Jesus references in his rebuke is found in 1 Sam 21. It’s an interesting story because it’s filled with all sorts of ethically disconcerting stuff, the least of which was the showbread (to me anyway). What do you believe Jesus’ point to the Pharisees is? What seems to be God’s priority when it comes to his intent behind any commandment?

How can we keep God’s priority in view as we attend to our own life of faith and the values that stem from that?

It will be a thought provoking study, hope to see you there!

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 Gospel in Unity

The most tolerant dog in the world. Tolerance is a oft-used word in our present world. I’m not always convinced we are using the word correctly. Tolerance implies that there is an objection to something – but that objection is intentionally set aside for the sake of peace or unity.

Unfortunately, tolerance, as presented on a societal level, is more a demand for uniformity, leaving little room for intellectual dissent. People who hold deep convictions have felt pressured to compromise, and the terrible by-product is a mistaken notion that outright intolerance for people who hold different views or values is the only way to respond if one is to be faithful to one’s beliefs. That is most certainly a mistake. Tolerance is a Christian virtue – and acceptance of others in spite of differences is held up as the standard for appropriate representation of the gospel.

The church could learn a lot from that dog in the video.

This Sunday we’ll be looking at Romans 14:1-21 as we continue our study in that book. Paul will be talking directly to the divisions in the Roman church – divisions over convictions and doctrines that were very important to those who held to them.

As you read through this chapter – how would you characterize Paul’s emphasis? What does he seem to hold as a greater importance than the specific practices and beliefs that people had?

Paul stresses the idea of God’s acceptance of believers who hold their convictions before the Lord. What is the basis of God’s acceptance of us?

What are the issues that seem to cause division in the church today? How might we learn from what Paul says and apply them to our own community today?

I believe this is one of the most important chapters for us to really grasp as 21st Century American Evangelical Christians. I hope you can make it this Sunday!

The Gospel’s Advance

Well, they say one should never discuss politics nor religion in polite company. We will strain that conventional wisdom this Sunday, as we look at Romans 13 in our continued study of that book. Paul will see to it that religion and civic authority collide in no uncertain terms.

v 1-7 have been a source of consternation and sometimes abuse throughout the history of the church. Paul clearly asserts that civil governments have been appointed by God, and because of that, Christians should submit to the laws of the government. He makes it clear that human government is appointed to keep order, so that the evil of this fallen world isn’t left to run unchecked. All of this, according to Paul, has to be paid for somehow, so we should pay the taxes the government requires of us.

Obviously, this can give us pause. It would be a reasonable question to ask if this meant someone like Hitler was appointed by God…and if so, to what extent was a Christian to be in submission to that government?  We know that despots have appealed to this passage to intimidate citizens into subjection, leveraging religious fear. Can this be what Paul had in mind when he wrote this?

How do you understand Paul’s instructions? Do you believe he is saying that God approves of all leaders or that all governments represent his values and will? As we consider our own American government by the people, how do you understand Paul’s statements? Do you believe there is room for lawful dissent or peaceful protest within these instructions?

How would you summarize Paul’s overarching point in chapter 13, in light of his instructions given in chapter 12:9-21?

In what way does his following statement, to owe nothing but love for our fellow human, inform your understanding of how the gospel is advanced in this world?

Paul wraps his thoughts up by pointing out the lateness of the hour, and the fast approaching revelation of God’s healing kingdom. How can our understanding of God’s kingdom help us to better understand and respond to human governments?

This section is going to be one in which we’ll need to be careful and clear in our thinking, as we process through Paul’s words. We’ll be taking a good long look at the historical context – the rise of Nero and the shape of the world in which Paul wrote these words. It should be enlightening, challenging and encouraging! Hope to see you Sunday!