January 30, 2012

The Life of Jesus: All the Small Things Mark 3:20-34 and Mark 6:1-6


Have you ever noticed that is it easy to miss something right under you nose? That pair of glasses sitting on your head, the keys jingling in your pocket, or the cellphone you are actually talking on? I have done that more times than I would like to admit.

We all seem to miss things we shouldn’t. I find that phrase interesting...right under your nose. It reminds us that we miss plain and obvious things so often we had to create a cliche to describe it. For some reason our brains don’t click or our eyes skip over what we are looking for, and we’re not able to see or comprehend something...that is right under our nose

This happened a lot with Jesus. People were constantly missing what was right under their noses. But sometimes Jesus seems to be doing it intentionally. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus seems to make it easier for people to misunderstand. He goes about teaching and healing, but never actually saying who He is...instead he allows others to make up their own mind. He gives them just enough evidence, but expects them, and us, to draw the conclusion.

When we started this series I said that in the Gospel of Mark Jesus repeatedly asks the question, either directly or with his actions and teaching, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?”

That is the million dollar question, “Who do you say that I am?” And we are only able to answer that question by being attentive to the things right under our noses. It is the small things that when we put them together help us answer that question. And today we are looking at some people who were not able to do that. They weren’t able to process what was under their noses and come to a proper conclusion.

We are looking at two different passages of Scripture today.

Our first passage is Mark 3:20-34
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”

23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”

31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!

Our second passage is Mark 6:1-6
1 Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

 4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.

We see in these two or three stories, depending on how you want to talk about it...a common themes People who were close to Jesus...didn’t understand him.

Family members who were around Jesus all the time, religious teachers who were listening and watching, and neighbors who had watched him grow up...none of them understood who Jesus was or what He came to do. They should have been the first, but they weren’t. They missed it.

His family and neighbors couldn’t accept Him as the Messiah because this was little Jesus who used to run through the village streets playing with the other kids. This was Jesus who worked in the town carpentry shop for most of His life. He played back-up quarterback and ran the hurdles for Nazareth High. He had some insightful teaching and did some amazing miracles, but we know where He really comes from...and hidden in there was a little bit of a dig...because this was Jesus whom everyone knew was born from an out-of-wedlock union and God would certainly not honor that. So his closest family assumed He was out of His mind, and His village (in Mark 6) took offense and refused to put their faith in Him.

For the religious teachers, Jesus was the guy who came from nowhere-ville Nazareth. He broke rules and challenged their authority. He wasn’t even trained by a rabbi, and He certainly didn’t fit their idea of what a Messiah should be...so obviously he was possessed by a demon. Because only a demon possessed man would say the things Jesus was saying.

And in these stories we see the reality of something we have another cliche for...

Familiarity breeds contempt...

Let’s get in our Delorean, accelerate to 88 mph, and go back to the early 1990’s. Do you remember the actor Luke Perry from the 90’s show 90210? He is from a small town named Fredericktown, Ohio. It is just outside where I went to college in Mt. Vernon, Ohio.

While in college I worked third shift at Walmart with a guy who attended high school with him. So one night I asked this guy about him. He said something along the lines of...He was always telling us how he was going to go to Hollywood and be some big-shot actor...acting like he was better than everyone else...what a jerk! We never believed him.

The saddest part is that last statement wasn’t made in a we-are-sorry-we-were-wrong way. It was said with bitterness and anger...because they were wrong. Luke Perry actually made it out of Fredericktown and acted in the most popular show on television from 1990-2000...they could probably gloat over his career since then, but that’s another story.

They knew Luke Perry. They went to school with Luke Perry. They never imagined he would become Luke Perry of 90210 fame...and His success was somehow a critique of their life. Familiarity bred contempt.

Jesus’ family and neighbors are impressed by his teaching, and they want Him to do miracles there like he does everywhere else, but they couldn’t really accept the teaching from Jesus the carpenter because they knew Him. They started out by asking a good question, “Where did He get these things?” It is a legitimate question. But instead of seeing the divine origin, they could only look to Jesus’ earthly origins, and it made it easier to reject Him.

And here is something we should all take note of...it was easier for them to see Jesus as insane, possessed by a demon, or disregard him because of where he came from...than it was for them to actually think about the truth and impact of His message and actions. It was so easy for them to write Jesus off because it meant they didn’t have to do anything in response to His message.

And because of this...contempt came easy.

We can see it in the response of the religious leaders... “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” You can hear it in the response of the family and neighbors...“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?”

You can hear their contempt. And because of this contempt they were unable to really hear Jesus’ message or experience His miracles...and they missed the Messiah. He was right there under their noses, and they missed him because their familiarity bred contempt.

One of the other symptoms of familiarity, though is that...

Familiarity creates blindness...

Have you ever been working on a puzzle...you are looking for that one piece or any piece that will fit, but you just can’t find it. Then you get up, go to the refrigerator for a drink, you walk around for a minute, and when you return to the puzzle...Blamo! Right there in front of you! Why didn’t you see it before?

It is because familiarity will create blindness. When you are around something for a long time, you become blind to it. One of the hardest parts of preaching or doing devotions out of a common passage of Scripture is that you have seen it so many times it is hard to approach it with fresh eyes.

Or maybe, wives, you have had this experience...you keep telling him something, over and over, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to hear you. But then someone else says the exact same thing to him, and it is like a lightbulb lights up, and he finally gets it! Familiarity creates blindness.

There were some who were filled with contempt and anger at Jesus’ teaching and miracles...but there were some who were simply blind and indifferent to what He was doing. I think we see that is Jesus’ closest family members. They didn’t hate him. They weren’t filled with contempt. They loved Him and just felt sorry for their brother who had gone off the deep end.

They were blind to what Jesus was teaching and doing. They just couldn’t see it.

We have to be careful with familiarity, and we have to be aware of the things that are right under our noses.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani when asked how he made such dramatic changes in New York City said, "If you want to change big things, you pay attention to small things." There is another way of saying that...the devil is in the details. The small things make a big difference. This is true of both us as a church and us as individuals as we follow Christ. As a church we want to change the world for Jesus Christ. As individuals we want to continually take steps closer to God. And it will only happen as we pay attention to the small things.

Our lives are not usually the result of 1 or 2 big decisions. We are where we are in lives because of thousands of small decisions. Things that are right under our noses and yet we pay no attention to them usually because they are so familiar and run-of-the-mill.

It is easy to take our simple acts of service for granted...to disregard them as small things. The Cincinnati Vineyard has a saying that we have stolen...I mean borrowed, “Small things done with great love will change the world.” This morning I get to brag on Carrie a little bit. We have been doing our 1,000 Acts of Kindness emphasis. So a couple of weeks ago, Carrie takes the kids out, buys some Kroger gift cards, and then chases people around the parking lot giving them the gift cards as an act of kindness. That one act of kindness led a lady to use the card and then talk about it with her mother. The mother was so impressed a church would do something like that she told her friends about it that night and showed them our card. Then on Tuesday, she is my waitress at The Heights Cafe, we start a discussion and yesterday she let us do our outreach right there at the coffee shop! All from one act of kindness to a stranger.

Another small thing for us as a church is our children’s ministry. Over the past few months our children’s area has been growing in numbers, and it would be easy to think, “These are just children. We can let them play” But, as a church, we want to take seriously the spiritual development of our little ones. These are people who need to hear about God, know that He loves them, and begin to follow Jesus. We need people to join our children’s ministry who are willing to say, “I want to invest in our children!” This may seem like a small thing, but it isn’t. If we want to build the church that will carry on into the next generation, we do the “small things” now and invest in our children.

We want to help people take their next step closer to God. This is a question of helping people grow into mature followers of Christ. If you want to grow in your spiritual life...you do the small things. You read the Bible, you pray, you meet with other Christians, you serve. It is easy to get into a rut with these things and go looking for something bigger and more spectacular...that magic bullet that will make us mature Christians. But growth happens each day as we go through our spiritual practices...as we do the small things.

We believe strongly in evangelism and helping people follow Jesus. If we want to introduce our family and friends to Christ...it starts with the small thing of acting like a follower of Jesus and then the other small thing of simply talking about what God is doing in our life. Most people don’t want or need a well-oiled presentation of the Gospel...they need your friendship, they need to see a life-giving faith practiced in your life, and they need to hear that it is real for you.

Anyone of these “small things” could be overlooked and disregarded...better churches and Christians than us have done so and found out the hard way. We have to resist the blindness or contemptuousness of familiarity and pay attention to the things right under our noses both as a church and as individuals pursuing God. There are so many things that will make a difference in our lives if we just pay attention to them...if we simply invest in doing the small things.

What are some small things that, if you started paying attention today, would make a huge difference in your life?

The people of Jesus’ time missed him because they were looking for something else. They weren’t looking for the carpenter down the street. They weren’t looking for the untrained teacher who had not studied under a rabbi. They weren’t looking for it to be their brother or son.

Let’s not miss out on the great things God has for us because we are blind to the small things right under our noses.

January 23, 2012

Life of Jesus: The Sabbath Mark 2:23-3:6


We are in a series on the Life of Jesus and working our way through the Gospel of Mark.  We aren’t able to touch on every passage, but we are hitting some of the highlights. Within our series there are going to be smaller, mini-series. Passages that fit along the same thematic line. We took two weeks and looked at the role of the desert in Jesus’ ministry. First as a place of loneliness and temptation, and then as a place of silence, solitude, and the presence of God. Right now, we are looking at few passages dealing with things that hinder our understanding of who Jesus is and what he calls us to do.

Last week we looked at a passage about Jesus eating with “Tax collectors and sinners” and how the Pharisees’ religious rejection of those kinds of people stood in the way of welcoming them into God’s presence. This carries over into our lives. Because how we perceive others will stand in the way of our being able to interact with certain groups, and let them know how much God cares for them and loves them.

I showed a video last week, that I want to show again, but this time spend a little time talking about because it really applies to what we are talking about.

See video here.

This video has created quite a stir on the Internet, and the biggest part comes from Jefferson Bethke’s use of the word “Religion.” With any word we use there are two ways to understand it. We have the literal, dictionary definition, and we have the connotation or the meaning we give based on feelings or ideas the word provokes apart from its literal meaning.

Take the words “thin” these are all considered to have the same basic meaning: beanpole, bony, delicate, emaciated, fragile, haggard, lean, puny, rickety, scrawny, shriveled, skeletal, skinny, slight, slim, small, and undernourished. The difference between definition and connotation is the word you would choose to describe your wife guys. Thin, slim, skinny...those are good. Bony, puny, scrawny, emaciated...those are bad...because of their connotation. They evoke feelings or ideas that are not necessarily part of their standard definition.

Let’s do this another way...anyone have an ex boyfriend or girlfriend whom you don’t like? Are you willing to name your child the same name as that ex? No...most of us won’t. Not because the name itself is bad, but because of all the feelings and sometimes murderous ideas the name provokes from us.

That is what is happening in this video. Jefferson is using the word religion not in its literal, dictionary definition. The definition of the word “Religion” is: “1. The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods. 2. Details of belief as taught or discussed.”

So some think...why would a church show that video? Churches and Christianity are part of a religion. It is a belief in God. It has beliefs that are taught and discussed. This is not the religion Jesus came to abolish; as Jefferson pointed out. Jesus was a Jew. He had a belief in God. He had regular practices of prayer, giving, serving, worshipping, and synagogue attendance as part of the Jewish religion.

But this is where the idea of connotation comes into play because that word religion evokes certain feelings and ideas inside of us when we hear it. For Jefferson, as it for some of us, when we think of religion...we think of stuffy services. We think of guilt trips and drawn out altar calls. We think of legalistic practices and rules demanded more out of conformity than obedience. For many, the word religion evokes feelings and ideas that have nothing to do with a relationship with God. Rather they are just legalism, rules, and man-made structures that push God away.

That is where we need to be careful as we think about last week’s passage and especially as we look at today’s passage. Jesus is about to confront one of the biggest religious ideas of Judaism...the Sabbath.

Let’s read the passage together, and the discuss it...

Mark 2:23-3:6
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

 1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

The Sabbath

To say the Sabbath or Shabbat is a big part of the Jewish religion is really an understatement. Along with their strong belief that there was only one true God, Shabbat was THE religious practice that set them apart. The Romans regarded the Jews as atheists because they did not have a stone idol or something to represent their deity...they worshipped and invisible God. They also regarded the Jews as lazy. The Romans worked hard all seven days, as did most other cultures during this time, and the Jews were considered lazy because they wouldn’t work all 7 days, and wanted to have one day set apart to worship and do no work.

But the Sabbath wasn’t meant to be a legalistic, confining thing...some of the rules may make it seem so to us, but it was meant to be a beautiful gift given by God to His people. The Judaism 101 website is an invaluable resource. It says, “Shabbat...is a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits.”

The Sabbath was to be a day of rest from work...or in the original Hebrew Melachah. Melachah, while translated as “work,” does not necessarily mean the same thing we mean when we say work. We would say that the Rabbi was working on Sabbath and therefore in the wrong...they would say you don’t understand melachah. This word refers to the kind of work that is creative or that exercises control or dominion or power over your environment. So they wouldn’t light a fire or cook or sow or plow a field...those were all melachah or exerting a control over the world around them.

Jesus and the Sabbath

As we look at these passages from Mark we see that Jesus and his disciples are definitely breaking Melachah. They are exerting control over their environment by rubbing the grain of the field between their hands and healing the man in the synagogue, and this brings them into sharp contention with the religious leaders of the day.

So let’s look quickly at these passages...there are two quick stories and three important concepts for us here today.

In the Fields

In the first story, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field on the Sabbath. The disciples are hungry so they pick some of the heads of grain, and rub their hands together to free the wheat from the chaff...much like liberating a peanut from its shell. On any other day this was a perfectly legal activity. According to Jewish law a person was free to graze a few heads of wheat from some-one's field as they passed through.

But not on the Sabbath. The disciples were committing melachah...by rubbing their hands together to work the husk free they were exerting dominion over their environment...so the Defenders of the Sabbath...the Pharisees...confronted Jesus with a question, “Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus responds with a story of King David and his men eating bread from the tabernacle that they were forbidden to eat. Jewish law prohibited what David and his men were doing just as Jewish law prohibited what Jesus’ disciples were doing...and yet God had not condemned David and his men for their actions.

So Jesus helps them make the connection to the current situation. Look at Mark 2:27-28, “27 Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’”

These are two very important statements by Jesus.

  1. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
  2. The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

The first statement reminds us that God is on our side. Even when obedience to His will is questioned by us...we need never doubt that God is on our side. And when we look at things like the Sabbath regulation...it not meant to be a burden, but rather a gift.

I don’t know about you, but I consider a day off with God’s permission a blessing...a gift. It is amazing to know He intends it not to be a crippling act of legalism, but something made for our pleasure and our enjoyment. To give us a break from the regular ebb and flow of life. To help us regain perspective on what really matters...and more importantly who is really in charge.

That leads us to the second statement Jesus makes...The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the one who gets to decide and judge what is appropriate; not the Pharisees.

When we talk about leadership and what it means to be a leader here at Crossroads Vineyard I have a few statements that I make often. One of them is this: Bible Knowledge and church involvement are not a replacement for Christian character & maturity.

Have you ever noticed, for some people not all, that Bible knowledge and the amount of time they spend doing church things makes them meaner? For those of us who grew up in a legalistic church setting...there were always those who thought they were the defenders of the faith.

Here is what I realize...I am not the judge and neither are you. As a pastor I am called to make judgements and lead, but I don’t have the right to make any final judgments about who does and does not get into the kingdom. I don’t get to judge whether someone does or does not pray enough. I do not get to judge whether someone’s skirt is long enough, they are wearing the right clothes for church or they are allowed to see a particular movie. There are some things that are definitely sinful and disqualifies a person from leadership...but even then we are not shunning and turning our backs on a person.

Jesus tells the Pharisees...this special day is a gift to mankind from God for His benefit...not a jail. And not only that...you don’t get to judge who is and is not doing it right...only I get to do that!

Healing on the Sabbath

The second story is another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus goes into the synagogue on the Sabbath to worship when He sees a man with a crippled hand. Jesus is moved with compassion to heal the man, but the Pharisees, rather than expectantly looking forward to this man’s healing...are looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.

So Jesus deliberately creates a confrontation. He says to the man, “Stand up in front of everyone!” Then he looks at the pretentious Pharisees and says, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil?”

And they refused to speak. They refused because they knew what they believed and what Jesus was going to do, and this was their chance to set him up.

So Jesus healed the man.
I said there were Two stories...the disciples walking through the field and Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. And there are three statements...

  1. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
  2. The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.
  3. Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?

The Sabbath was made for man...it is a gift. Jesus is the one in charge of the Sabbath. And, now, doing good and saving a life trumps the letter of the law.

Imagine you are walking beside a lake when you hear someone shouting, “HELP! HELP me I’m drowning!” You take off in the direction of the yell, and you see someone about 20 to 30 feet out. You are a good swimmer with a life-saving class under your belt so you start to head out into the water. But then you see the sign, “No Swimming Allowed” with a big cross through a stick figure swimming in water. So you yell out to the drowning person, “I’m so sorry. I can and could rescue you, but the sign clearly says, ‘No Swimming!’”

That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it...but that is what the Pharisees would have Jesus do. They know Jesus can heal this man, and they sit there expecting their rule about Sabbath keeping to trump Jesus’ compassion for this man. So Jesus’ challenge focuses on whether doing good should trump a rule, and we see in this story where Jesus stands.

Conclusion

Most of us do not need reminded that we don’t live by a strict observance of Sabbath. In fact, we might need the opposite lesson...that some of us need to set aside a day where do not work, but rather focus on resting and celebrating in the presence of God for an entire day. For you, you need to hear that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, and while he has given it as a gift for mankind...in neither of these stories does Jesus do away with the expectation that we should have a Sabbath.

But on a broader level, we can see in these stories how to handle issues of legalism and religious rules.

1. Jesus is the Lord and judge...not us. We don’t get to judge and determine what is or is not God’s will. We can make definite statements where the Bible clearly says something is right or wrong...but there have been times when the church has made definitive statements about things...as though it were God, and they were not definite things. There is also a big difference between God’s mandates...and man’s traditions. God’s laws, properly understood are never to be broken. Man’s tradition, while breaking them they may tick some people off, are not on the same level as God’s laws.

2. God’s mandates are gifts, not prisons. If God requires something of us, you better believe He has our best interests at heart. In all my years of serving Him, I have never found Him arbitrary. So when He asks us to take a Sabbath...He is doing so for our own good. He won’t force us to do what He has said...but He will allow us to suffer the consequences if we persist in disobedience. Like the parent who warns their child, “If you wear those shoes, you will get blisters!” There are two ways to handle that. One, you can fight and maybe eventually get them to change their shoes. Or, you can let them wear the shoes and suffer the consequences. God does not force us to do as He says. That wouldn’t be obedience. He allows us to follow.

3. It is always right to do good for others. I will break any tradition out there if in doing so it accomplishes good. I think this is the difference between God’s laws and man’s traditions. God’s laws if broken never bring about good...only heartache and sadness. But there are religious traditions and rules that may be good most of the time, but at other times they can stand in the way of doing good. For years, musical preference was a tradition that kept many from even checking out the church...dress codes, coffee in the sanctuary...these are traditions, and while they can be good, traditions are not on the same level as God’s laws.

Some of us have come from legalistic backgrounds, and it can be difficult to experience a life giving relationship with Jesus Christ because of all the baggage we carry. A couple weeks ago we sent out a flyer that simply said, “Faith is a journey, not a guilt trip.” For far too long we have been held captive by well-meaning traditions that have seen their day come and go or have been set on par with the will of God, and rather than foster a closer relationship with God...they have stood in the way.

This morning, I want to invite you to leave that baggage behind. Set it down. Jesus has accomplished all that needs to be accomplished for our salvation. The praying, serving, Bible reading, and obedience...should come out of a desire for relationship as a response of love...not because we have to. And the long list of don’ts should be reduced to those things that are from God...not a man-made list to be followed. Lay that baggage down. Enjoy the gifts of God.

Check out Crossroads Vineyard online here.

January 16, 2012

Life of Jesus: Hanging Out with Disreputable People Mark 2:13-17




A few years ago I was sitting in my favorite Vietnamese restaurant having what is one of my favorite meals. I had been there often enough that the owner recognized me, and since there was no one else in the restaurant she started a conversation with me. She pointed at a book I had laying on the table beside me and said, “Are you a student?”


I told her I wasn’t, and she said, “Oh, you look so young. I thought you were a student!”

“I’m about 10 years out of my Master’s degree...so I’m not so young,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry for the mistake. I assured her it was a mistake I didn’t mind her making. Then she asked, “What do you do?”

“I’m a pastor.”

“You don’t look like a pastor!” she said. “You don’t look like any pastor I have ever seen!”

After a few more minutes of saying, “Yes, I’m a pastor.” She finally said, “I can’t believe you are a pastor. You are proof Jesus looks at the heart.”

I wasn’t sure how to take that last statement...a compliment...maybe?

Do you know what I like most about Jesus? I like that that lady is right. Jesus looks at the heart. He cares for everybody. In fact, our passage today is a great illustration of how Jesus’ mission included reaching everyone...even those whom people hated or thought were beyond God’s ability to reach.

Let’s read Mark 2:13-17
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

 15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Have you ever noticed there are people whom you just don’t like to be around? Maybe it is a group of people you find unbearable? Most people won’t admit it openly, but there are some groups we would just rather not be around. Maybe it’s the members of that OTHER political party or that other nationality or that think that way or who dress that way or come from that area. For the Pharisees in Jesus day the people they despised went by a simple and clear label that fully explained why you should stay away from them. They were called, “tax collectors and sinners.”

These were the people whom good Jewish boys and girls were to stay as far away from as they could.

Tax collectors were Jewish men who had sided with the Romans...traitors...who collected taxes from their fellow Jews. They were despised because they regularly hung around with Gentiles, they worked for the Romans, and they were notoriously dishonest. In the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, two of the religious documents of early Judaism, tax collecting was listed as a “despised trade;” meaning you could not worship God as a Jew and work in this field.

The other group lumped in here are called “sinners.” These are the people that don’t fit with decent society and will not obey the religious standards of the day. They were often immoral and refused to obey the ritual laws the religious leaders had established. Sometimes, though, they were people who because of their poverty or a disease were seen as unclean and not allowed to participate with the rest of decent society.

The Pharisees believed a person became ritually as well as morally defiled by spending any time with these people...so they avoided them and forbid others to spend time with them. These tax collectors and sinners were banned from the Temple; which was the only place they could be in the presence of God. These men and women labeled as “tax collectors and sinners” were outcasts and rejected. The tax collectors were rejected for political and ethical reasons, and the sinners for religious and moral reasons.

So when the Pharisees see this massive dinner party, and Jesus reclining at the table with tax collectors and sinners they are appalled. here is Jesus is reclining at the dinner table with these people, and everyone knew dinner was not just dinner in this culture. In today’s culture we will have dinner with just about anyone, but not so in Jesus day. Dinner was a special time reserved for friends, family, and respectable people.

One scholar, Jeremias, says,
“[Eating with these people] was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.”
This only further demonstrates to the Pharisees that Jesus is not worthy to be a religious teacher. How could he, if he had any understanding of God, sit at a table with these people knowing what they were like? He had to know their lifestyle. No self-respecting rabbi in Judaism would lower himself to be near these people, much-less eat with them.

Jesus is dangerous simply by his presence at a dinner table because he is declaring to the world God loves these people whom others consider outcasts and rejects. He loves them just as much they thought he loved the “respectable people.”

But not only is Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners, he is even willing to call them to be His disciple. Mark 2:14 says, “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.” Mark uses the exact same Greek structuring for this passage where Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to follow Him as he does when Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John the chapter before. So not only is Jesus willing to eat with them, but he is willing to have them follow him as disciples too.

The Pharisees couldn’t restrain themselves any longer. They approach the disciples and ask, “Do you really want to follow someone like this? Someone who would allow these kind of people to follow Him? Someone who would eat with these kinds of people?”

We too have to ask, “What is it that caused Jesus to associate with these kinds of people? Why would he accept and eat with the people others are rejecting and turning from?”

It is because of the amazing, wonderful, scandalous thing known as grace. Mark 2:17 says, “Jesus said to [the pharisees], ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

You see Jesus didn’t come to call healthy people to himself...because healthy people don’t need a doctor. And those who think they are healthy can’t follow him because they think they already have things figured out. Jesus calls to those of us who recognize we don’t have it all together.

Many of us have had the experience in the church where people have put on a facade, a mask to the world around them that says, “I have it all together, and you should too!” and we know they don’t. But here we see Jesus saying, “Just when you think you have it all together...you don’t!”

We don’t have it all together. We are broken, hurting, scarred people who need God’s grace and salvation just like everyone else.

Levi recognized this while sitting at his desk. He was despised and rejected, and if he fit the typical understanding of a tax collector, he was a cheat and liar. He regularly charged people more than they actually owed to line his own pockets. So when this rabbi Jesus simply says, “Follow me,” he gets up from his table and follows Him. Something happens in that moment, and Levi recognizes that his old way of life is empty and leading nowhere. He gets up from his table, and steps into this wonderful thing known as grace.

A grace so amazing, Levi couldn’t stop with just receiving it...he calls all his friends together because he wants them to experience this wonderful thing he has experienced! He wants all of his friends to meet Jesus because here is a man who is willing to hang out with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus opened the door for these men and women, outcasts and rejects, to be in the presence of God.

One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 1:3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” What that verse means is that if we want to know what God is like, how God would act, and what God would do in our world...all we have to do is look at Jesus. And here in this passage we see Jesus caring for those who are on the “outside.”

Our world has its own version of those who are on the outside...the tax collectors and sinners...those people whom the upstanding members of the church wouldn’t be caught dead with...and Jesus reminds us that he wouldn’t be having dinner at our house if he were here today...he would have dinner with THOSE people...

Anne Lamott in her book Traveling Mercies reminds us, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Far too often the church creates a “list,” not a literal list, but an understanding of who good Christians should and should not hang around...and Jesus challenges our religiosity by reminding us, “I came for everyone!”

Welcoming today’s tax collectors and sinners into our gathering means church should be a messy place filled with imperfect people...because God is still working in people’s lives.

There was a young college student named Bill. He had wild hair, torn jeans, flip-flops, a Marilyn Manson T-shirt, but he had just recently become interested in Jesus Christ.

One Sunday he decided to go to church some place other than the college small group he had been hanging around; so he goes to the church across the street from campus. It was a conservative church with well-dressed and respectable people.

Picture the scene as Bill enters. He is wearing flip-flops, torn jeans, T-shirt, and sporting that wild hair. The service has already started, so Bill makes his way down the aisle looking for a seat. The pews are full, so he keeps walking. By now, people are a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. He continues looking for a seat, but finds only confused and uncomfortable gazes. When he realizes there are no seats, he simply squats down on the floor at the front. In the small group at his college fellowship this is perfectly acceptable, but no one had ever done it at this church.

The people became nervous, and you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Just then a deacon gets up from his seat and walks slowly toward Bill. This deacon is in his eighties, and is wearing a three piece suit. He is known as a dignified and godly man. As he approaches Bill some people are thinking to themselves, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. We can’t just let people come to church dressed however they want and sit on the floor like that!”

Silence fell over the church, and everyone’s eyes are on this deacon. When he reaches Bill the man drops his cane to the floor, and with a quite a bit of trouble and grunting he gets down on the floor next to Bill and just sits there.

When the pastor regained the ability to speak, he said, “What I am about to preach you may never remember, but what you have just seen I hope you never forget.”

About part way through that story...I bet you thought you knew what was going to happen didn’t you? As I read that story for the first time, I know what I thought was going to happen. I thought the deacon was going to ask the young man to find a more appropriate seat or, worse, ask him to leave. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but I certainly hope it is...I hope it is true, if not in fact, then in principle. That no matter how cleaned up we think we are...we are willing to say to people, “Come as you are you will be loved!”

Our vision as a church is to be a place that welcomes everyone on the journey of faith...that invites people to seek out this scandalous grace of God that is willing to associate with tax collectors and sinners...and with us. Our mission as a church is to help people take their next step closer to God...we say that because everyone of us has a next step...none of, if we are honest with ourselves, has it all together. And only when we realize just how much we need Jesus are we able to hear Him say, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” and then  realize that he means you and me...that we are the ones who are sick...we are the sinners who need God’s grace.

For more information about Crossroads Vineyard Church in Huber Heights, Ohio check us out online at www.daytoncrossroads.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/daytoncrossroads

January 9, 2012

Life of Jesus: The Desert as a Place to Hear God's Voice Mark 1:35-38


We are working our way through a message series called the Life of Jesus. Last week we talked about Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the desert. We looked at the desert as a place or time of trial, testing, and temptation. A dry and lonely place where our character and resolve are tested. But that is not the only metaphor for which the desert was used. The desert was also viewed as a place of silence, solitude, and strength-gathering. It was a symbol of separation from all the normal busyness to gain insight and to hear God’s voice.

In the Old Testament, Moses, shepherding a flock in the silence of the desert, saw a burning bush and experienced the presence of God. In the desert, the Israelites learned to follow and depend on the sustaining presence of God. Following his defeat of the 450 false prophets of Baal, the depressed Prophet Elijah fled to the desert to hear the still, quiet whisper of God’s voice. In the desert, the young shepherd David developed the skills of prayer and worship that sustained a kingdom.

The desert was seen not just as a place of trial and testing...it was also a place of rest and God’s presence. It was a place where people were surrounded by silence allowing them to hear the voice of God in a way they couldn’t in the midst of their busy lives.

There are some messages I get the privilege to preach where I have studied, lived out, and by the grace of God am making headway in living an obedient life in regards to what I’m teaching. There are many more where I am just a traveler on the path alongside everyone else trying to figure out how to live with what God is saying in the passage. And then there are messages like today’s, more than I would like to admit, where I am a complete and utter failure.

This past week is a shining example of how my failure to create margins and times of silence, solitude, and rest plays itself out in my life.

From Monday afternoon until Friday evening, I was confined to the same few feet of couch space with a 100+ degree fever, aches, and coughing...pure miserableness! Except for a few things that had to be done, I never left the couch. And yes, Jason, a shower was one of those things. Literally everything in my life came to a screeching halt this week. I couldn’t move, couldn’t think, couldn’t do anything except lay there.

Anyone who knows me knows that that is the hardest part...laying there. I don’t stand in the same spot for four minutes much less on a couch for four days! But this week my body reclaimed much of the rest it has been denied for quite some time because I have not done a good job of creating margins in my life. I haven’t created that time for rest and gathering strength. I have allowed busyness to win.

And our passage today has a lot to say to me, but I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I’m the only one with this problem. We live in a busy society that expects us to be just as busy as it is. It is as though our importance is based upon how busy we are.

How are you today? Busy! Swamped! Running Ragged!

And it is easy for us to condone and make excuses for all we have to do, isn’t it? We have a responsibility to get this thing done; an obligation. Someone will be disappointed if we don’t. I have to push this out of my schedule because when else is it going to get done. We run from one thing to the next packing our schedules with successive appointments, and eventually what gets shortchanged is the margin, the times for rest and quiet reflection in our lives.

On a spiritual level we begin to wonder why we haven’t heard God’s voice or felt His leading.

Mark chapter 1:14-34 gives us a glimpse into the average day of Jesus. He is walking along the banks of the Sea of Galilee and calls four men to leave all they have built their lives around and follow him into an unknown future. Then in Capernaum, Jesus begins to teach the crowds, and people are amazed and flock to him. He heals people with evil spirits and physical disabilities, and before the day is done, verse 33-34 says, “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons...”

That sounds like a pretty full day. He is a busy man.

But then we find this gentle and unpleasant reminder in Mark 1:35-38, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’”

In today’s world, Jesus has just made it! He has hit the big time. It is time for him to hire a publicist, a couple of bodyguards, and a manager to book all the healing and teaching gigs that will come pouring in. His books and DVDs will soon be flying off the shelves. He is expected to make some guest appearances on the talk shows. Videos of his healing and teaching ministry have now gone viral on Youtube.

This is exciting stuff for his disciples. They have no sooner left their obscure fishing careers than they are thrust into the spotlight with the most popular rabbi in the area. “Everyone is looking for you!” Peter exclaims. You can almost sense the giddiness in his voice. But I’m pretty sure Peter didn’t expect the response Jesus gave him. “Let’s go somewhere else...”

Jesus is doing everything wrong by most standards. He has an adoring crowd gathering to listen to him. There are so many people who adore him. He could make a difference in people’s lives with this ability to heal and teach...and here we see him leaving it all to go to the next town.

We know the rest of the story, we know Jesus is really making the right decision. We know he is choosing the greater mission of God instead of what would be temporary fame and a greedy, self-seeking audience. We have the big picture here with Jesus, but in our own lives it is easy to lose focus in the midst of all those clamoring voices. Jesus does something very important, though, to stay grounded and focused in the will of God that we would be wise to take note of...look at Mark 1:35 again, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

While everyone else was still asleep in bed, Jesus was seeking a solitary place to hear the voice of God. It would have been easy for him to just sleep in. Look at the day before...teaching, healing, teaching and healing some more, then casting out demons, the whole town at your door wanting you to do stuff for them...that’s a full day. He must have been worn out, and yet he awoke early to spend time alone in prayer.

And this isn’t the only time we see this in Mark. He makes a point to show Jesus going off alone to pray. In Mark 6 Jesus feeds the 5,000, and then sends the disciples off in a boat while he dismisses the crowd. After the crowd is gone, we see in Mark 6:46, “After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.” Later in Mark 14, Jesus, awaiting his betrayer and his arrest, leaves his disciples again to pray alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus makes it a habit to step away from the hustle and bustle and busyness to spend time praying.

Jesus understands what I so often fail to grasp...the body needs rest. The body needs time to recover strength, to regain what it has exhausted, and not just physically but spiritually as well. When things get busy or I allow myself to do just one more thing...the first thing I stop doing is creating time for rest and margin and prayer in my life.

Jesus sought out the silence of the desert because it was a place for him to rest and pray and hear God’s voice. It was a way to discover the will of God.

There are so many times when people have asked me, “How can I know God’s will for this upcoming decision?” And I find out they have not spent any real time praying. They have talked to God, sure, amidst all the busyness and clamor or their regular lives they had spoken words in God’s direction with an “amen” at the end, but they had not withdrawn to the silence and the solitude of the desert...they have not really been seeking God’s will or they would have spent more time in a place where they could listen and not just talk.

Have you ever attempted to carry on a deep conversation in a busy restaurant? It’s impossible. Everyone ends up shouting, and no one can be heard. That’s why coffee shops and patios and living rooms are important...they are places where we can speak as well as be heard, and we need those spaces in our lives.

If we want to know the will of God for our lives...if we want to find the spiritual strength we need to make it through...if we want to hear the voice of God...we must make time in our lives for rest and silence...we have to make room for the desert. We have to seek it out and protect those times in our schedules.

I am always challenged by a quote from the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. If I could just just hit his first mark I would consider myself a major success not to mention the second. But I think the underlying principle holds true. He says,
“If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day. I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.”  
Don’t get caught up in that two hour-three hour thing...or you will instantly feel guilty for not doing enough. Is it a good thing to spend that much time in prayer? Of course, and it may be a challenge God wants you to meet. But first our call is to recognize the principle that we must maintain the space in our lives for prayer.

We often say I’m too busy to add one more thing to my schedule, I can’t pray. But Martin Luther reminds us that the busier we are...the more we need to spend time in God’s presence.

This passage in Mark challenges us to make time for silence and solitude away from all distractions so we can hear the voice of God because Jesus did. The reality is we cannot hear God over the clamor of our lives. Cell phones ringing, notifications going off, radios and ipods...we have created a cocoon of sound around us, and then add on that all the busyness. We try squeezing prayer in in the car or at work or any number of other places, and I don’t want you to get the impression that those are wrong or are not prayer...we need those times. But they are not enough...they are not silence and we are often not really able to listen to God.

Have you ever wondered why your best ideas come while taking a shower? It’s because that is one of the few places where you are alone with little to no real noise and your mind is free to relax. Now imagine what might happen in your life if you were to step out of some of the busyness and begin to schedule regular times of quiet and solitude?

It might mean saying “No” to something that people tell you is important. It might mean getting up before everyone else or staying up a little later than everyone else. It might mean going to a quiet place for lunch. You know your life and schedule better than me. The important thing is that begin to see our need for a time of silence, solitude, and prayer and make it a priority.

As we look forward to the new year, let’s schedule in the times of rest and silence our bodies and spirits need to stay connected to God.

I believe once we make the time for silence and rest and prayer a priority...we will begin hearing the voice of God and recognizing His will more often in our lives...

January 6, 2012

Life of Jesus: The Desert as a Place of Testing Mark 1:9-15


This week I heard the most depressing commercial for the New Year I have ever heard. It said something along the lines of...This year we have faced many difficulties. An earthquake caused a massive tsunami that destroyed a large part of Japan. Large storms and hurricanes destroyed part of the U.S. Joplin, Missouri was all but destroyed by a massive tornado. An earthquake shook the Eastern Seaboard causing less damage to Washington D.C. than our elected officials. Okay, that last part wasn’t in there. But after all that depressing stuff it then said in a happy and chipper voice, “Here’s hoping you have a great 2012...Happy New Year!!”

My first sarcastic thought was, What a peppy New Year’s Commercial!

No! If I were those people, I wouldn’t want to think about what the next year could bring. Look what if brought last year. Of course I’m sure there is some optimist out there, probably a former cheerleader, who is saying, “Next Year is going to be great! Great! Great!” But most people are not like that.

Then I started thinking...you know, life hasn’t been good for many people this past year. I think the commercial was a bit odd, but people have really struggled this past year. Besides the havoc caused by natural disasters, unemployment, family struggles, financial difficulties, and much more...have caused people to suffer some very tough times this past year. They have caused some of US to suffer this past year.

When tough times hit, people’s thoughts often turn to God. Some cry out for help. Others seek to lay the blame or accuse Him. Many simply see a reason to reject that God cares at all...besides if He really cared wouldn’t He do something about this mess we are all in?

We call them the “tough times” because they are tough, and how we respond in the midst of these times is very important for whether they continue to make our lives tough for many days to come or whether they are a springboard into great depths of discipleship and growth.

This morning we are going to look at a very important passage that reveals something about how we are to respond to the tough times in our lives...not just to get through them...not just to survive, although in the midst of those times we are often just hoping we will survive...but so that we CAN grow because of them.

Let’s look at today’s passage.

Mark 1:9-15
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Here we see Jesus at what is the beginning of his earthly ministry. Mark doesn’t waste time telling us about stables and angels and shepherds and mysterious magi...He jumps right into the meat of the story!

John the Baptist comes out of the desert preaching that the Kingdom of God is near...that people should repent...and that one greater than he will appear to baptize people in the power of the Holy Spirit, and immediately Jesus appears. John is fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy of Malachi and Isaiah by calling for people to prepare for the coming Messiah...and then Jesus shows up. Jesus is the one greater than John who will appear, Mark doesn’t want us to miss this connection.  

So Jesus shows up to be baptized by John, and when He comes out of the water...something amazing happens. Jesus experiences this profound revelation, and Mark chooses his words very carefully throughout this section. When he says the heavens are torn open, he uses the same phrasing as that used in Isaiah 64:1 where Isaiah is crying out for God to do something about the sin of this world, and he says, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down...” Please do something about this mess we are in! So when Mark uses this phrase here he is indicating that in Jesus, God has come down to do something about our sin.

Mark then says the Spirit descended like a dove...reflecting Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit flutters across the face of the deep to bring a new creation from the darkness and turmoil of the deep. It also reminds us of Mark’s own words just a few sentences prior where John the Baptist says one will come after me baptizing people with the Holy Spirit...and voila...here is the Holy Spirit!

Then in this amazing revelation of who Jesus is, God himself makes the declaration, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This sentence borrows wording from three very important Messianic passages in the Bible. Psalm 2:7 reflecting the connection with King David, Genesis 22:2 reflecting the connection with Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, and Isaiah 42:1 reflecting God’s suffering servant...bringing together three of the large-scale theological concepts about the promised Messiah.

It is easy, for me at least, to be blown away by Mark’s amazing ability to bring brilliant writing and insightful theological reflection together in this section. Beyond that, however, we have to recognize what a great spiritual high point this must have been on the human level. Jesus isn’t just being baptized, He is being commissioned and called to a ministry unlike any other in human history by God himself.

This isn’t unique to Jesus alone, though. Many of us have had times with God where His presence was so real it was almost physical, and these times are amazing. There have been times when I have heard an almost audible voice speaking to me. I attended Dayton Christian. I didn’t want to be there, and didn’t really want anything to do with God. But during one of my scheduled napping sessions which the teacher preferred to call chapel, I looked up at the person preaching, and heard a very definite voice say, “You can do that!” I knew I had just heard from God. I can’t explain how I knew, but I did. The voice was almost audible.

There have been other times, as well, where the presence of God is so real and close...and these time create this sense of joy and happiness and elation. They are wonderful.

But anyone who has experienced those times also knows what follows...we attach topography to our theology and say we have had a mountain top experience and then we face the “valley.”

It has become almost a christianese cliche to say we are experiencing a “valley,” but even those outside the church know what we are talking about. When we talk about a valley...we are talking about a low time...those dark days...those tough times which we all go through.

For those living in Israel it wasn’t the valley they used as the dominant metaphor for their tough times...it was the desert...the Negev. Along the entire Eastern and southern side of Israel is a massive swath of barren, dry desert. Just dirt, rock, and sand. The desert is a lonely place of death and dryness that devours people; place where wild things attacked and destroyed without fear because it was their territory. No one traveled through the desert because the land was a wasteland without water.

So Jesus is baptized and experiences this amazing revelation of God’s blessing and calling, and then enters a desert experience.

John Wesley said,
"So in all the children of God, extraordinary manifestations of his favour are [often] followed by extraordinary temptations." 
And so it is for us. Often after experiencing a special time with God...a heightened spiritual experience...an unusually happy season in our lives...we enter a valley or desert experience.

Some of you may have experienced a desert season yourself in the past...you might be in one now...or one might lay ahead for you...there is no getting around the fact that we will experience the desert some time in our lives.

If you are like me, you have read this passage and its corresponding passages in Matthew and Luke. The temptation is to fill in, in our minds, what is missing here in Mark with what we know from Matthew and Luke. We remember the fasting and the three temptations Jesus faces, the bread and the throwing yourself down from the temple and the bowing and worshiping Satan, and we read over this passage in Mark and miss a couple of important things being said.

Mark strips his version of the story down. There is no mention of fasting, and there is no mention of the content of Jesus’ temptations. Instead we have this odd statement in Mark 1:12, “At once the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness...” It is easy to miss this part...it is the Spirit...the same spirit that descended upon him like a dove that drove Him into the dryness of the desert.

It is tempting to think that our desert experience is brought on by our own sinfulness. We have done something wrong, and God is punishing us. And there are times when we do have to face the consequences of our actions and choices...but not all desert experiences are brought on by our sinfulness. Here is Jesus being driven into His desert experience not because of something sinful or wrong, but because the Holy Spirit is driving him to it. Sometimes, like Jesus’ experience in this passage, our desert season is brought on by God himself.

Jesus is driven into the desert to be tempted. The word we translate as “tempt” carries more than just trying to entice someone to do something wrong. It also describes a testing of a person’s character. It is way to see if the person’s character and resolve are true; to see if they can withstand the pressures that will come their way.

It is like butt-test machine at IKEA. Have you seen this? It is a machine that replicates someone sitting down, standing up, sitting down, standing up over and over again on one of their chair cushions to demonstrate that it will withstand any size of deriere...I mean any amount of sitting down you can dish out. That is “temptating” or “testing” the product to see if it will live up to its claim

Jesus has been given this amazing revelation, and now it is time to see if He will be able to withstand the challenge ahead. Often we make claims...and decisions...that are really easy to live with when things are going well, but it is only in the tough times that our character and commitment to those beliefs and decisions are validated.

Take marriage for example...it is easy to say “I love you” when everything is moving on the richer and healthier side of the marriage vows isn’t it? But real love is demonstrated when things get tough, and we gut it out and find a way to make things work.

Take a decision to go to college...it is easy to stay engaged when we like all our classes and get good grades. But real commitment to the degree happens when the classes get tough, we don’t like the professor, or get a bad grade in a class we need.

Maybe it is a chosen career path. It is easy to pursue it when everything is working and we are successful...but real commitment to the field is demonstrated when things get tough, we are on the verge of bankruptcy, no one is buying our product, or we are told that our way of doing things won’t work in the field...and we keep pressing forward.

Our commitment to God acts very much the same way...it is easy to love and follow God when we are employed, healthy, and loved by others. But real commitment is tested when we are unemployed, sick, and persecuted by others yet follow God anyways.

The Spirit that descended on Jesus at His baptism is the same Spirit that drove Him into the dryness of the desert to test His character, it is the same Spirit that often drives us into the desert to test our commitment and character.

I find it comforting to think that I am not alone in my times of testing. Jesus has been there and done that, as they say. He has been to the dessert..He understands our pain...He experiences it with us. I also find it comforting that out of that desert time and pain..something amazing can happen...if I let it.

Out of our testing we are given meaning, and purpose, and ministry!

It is easy to look back at our past and see all the desert times...the ways we have been hurt, abandoned, dry, depressed, and alone...and want to forget or ignore they ever happened. Sometimes we let them build a wall around us that we think protects us from the pain, but really just numbs us to life.

One of the most healing moments in my life happened when I began to see those desert times as times that have shaped my character and made me the man I am today. Like me or not, I am who I am because of the things that have happened in my past both good and bad!

You are who you are today because of the good and the bad experiences of your past.

And out of those experiences God wants to use you to make a difference for His Kingdom.

You can choose to let those hurts and hard times close you off, shut you down, harden your heart, or build a wall around you so that no one can get through...or you can see them as an opportunity to help others, heal hurts, change the world, and expand the Kingdom of God.

Our passage tells us that after His desert experience “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” Out of His time in the desert, Jesus emerged as the man who would and could fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah, and open the path to our salvation.

In 2000, Lori and I moved to Pleasant Hill, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City, to plant a church. I had all these grand expectations and plans...that just fizzled. We has seen God move in some pretty cool ways to get us into the community and make provision for the new church, but shortly after that everything went south. I thought my early life was tough, these were the toughest years of my life. The only way I can describe them is that they were like a heavy, dark blanket that I couldn’t find my way out from under. Nothing went as planned. The church never grew above 35. We had 5 major car breakdowns, Lori had a cyst that turned her femur into a hollowed out canoe that snapped one day in the park...which led to a $20,000+ surgery and a year+ worth of rehab...we were on the edge of financial collapse as a family...and I spiraled downward emotionally. They were dark days.

I did everything I could do to “get myself out of it.” I tried to think positive thoughts, tried praying, tried everything...and nothing happened. In fact, it felt like things got worse. I even tried threatening God. “You have to do something,” I prayed, “Or else I’m done! Done with ministry! Done with You!” And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to do that...so I backed down. I felt alone...and hopeless.

I wish I had understood this passage better back then. I don’t know if it would have helped, but maybe it would have...to see that time as a time of testing my character and resolve to follow no matter how difficult things get. To trust God even in the midst of the dryness and wildness of that desert time. And really it is out of that time that I felt crazy enough...I mean strong enough to accept God’s call to plant another church.

I don’t know what dry times you have or are or will experience, but I do know this...they are not without a purpose unless we allow them to be. As we start this New Year, I want to challenge us to redeem the past hurts and desert times and prepare for the future ones by resolving to view them as times of testing for something greater God has in mind.

 If we experience the dark and dry days and come out bitter and angry and void of faith or refuse to find our ministry out of them...then we have failed the ultimate test and purpose of those times.

But if they are filled with meaning and purpose...they are redeemed, if I can use a theological term...if we allow them to test our character and prepare us then God can use them to expand His Kingdom through us.

What a great challenge for us as start this morning at the very edge of a new year.

How might God want to use your desert experience to expand His Kingdom in the new year? What ministry might He be leading you to because of the testing you experience?