No Sunday Service March 9th

Christ CrucifiedBecause of Spring Break, there will be no Sunday Service at Heinz Chapel on March 9th. There will be a service of Holy Communion on March 16th (11 am). Hope to see you there!

Student Service at Heinz Chapel Resumes January 12th

Heinz Memorial ChapelThe weekly Student Service at Heinz Chapel begins at 11 am on Sunday January 12th. Students of all denominations and of none are invited to come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth His praise, to hear and reflect on His holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

Sermon December 8th: the Resurrection

Well here we are at the last Sunday of the Semester, and the last chapter of Mark! I must admit that we could have used a couple more Sundays, but I don’t think we’ve done actual violence to Mark’s gospel, and I hope those of you have been here regularly have found this survey helpful—I must say it’s opened my eyes to a few things I hadn’t paid enough attention to before!

All four gospels end with an account of the resurrection, but Mark’s has important differences from the other three. Some scholars consider that Mark’s text originally ended at v 8, and all that comes after was added by someone else. This is because some early manuscripts of Mark end at v 8, and because vv 9–20 are written in a very different style than the rest of the gospel. This is impossible to see in the English translation, of course, but some people who have great familiarity with Ancient Greek say it’s easy to see in the original. And it is the case that some manuscripts that don’t end at v 8 have different endings. Some add one part of vv 9–20, some another, and both parts make sense as independent endings for the gospel. Other mss add all the verses. So the idea that Mark’s contribution ends at v 8 has become very widely accepted. That does not, of course, mean that it is true. The list of falsehoods that have been widely accepted as true at one time or another is an extremely long one. It’s true that a few early copies of Mark’s gospel don’t have vv 9–20, but it’s also true that most early copies do, and whether the ones that don’t are more reliable than those that do is a matter of opinion. The earliest mss we have of Mark’s gospel are from around 200 AD, although we know it was written earlier than that because people are quoting it or referring to it a century earlier. And some of these people quote the disputed verses, so we know they were in mss older than any we now have. We can also say that who wrote them is less important than the fact that the earliest Christians recognised their content as consistent with the apostolic witness to the teaching of Jesus, and that’s how I treat them. If you want to know more about the debate about Mark’s ending, there’s plenty of material to read in the Pitt library.

Which means I have to say something about vv 17f, where Jesus says these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them. And you probably know that there are some churches where a couple of times a year, they will bring poisonous snakes into the service and people can demonstrate their faith by picking one up. Every once in a while you read about someone being bitten, but not often. But that may not be what Jesus is getting at here. Notice that Jesus’s command to preach the gospel is put differently by Mark—or by Peter, remember, whom Mark is actually quoting—than by the other gospel writers; in v 15 Jesus says, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Not just to all people, but to the whole creation. The Greek word used means the entire created universe, stars and planets, angels and men, animals and plants, rocks and water, earth, wind and fire—everything. When man first disobeyed God, it didn’t just affect Adam, it didn’t just affect all mankind, it affected the whole creation. That’s why the New Testament says that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God—once all people have been restored to their right relationship with God, the whole creation will be renewed, and snakes won’t be dangerous, and that’s what will be the sign that the gospel has been fully preached: not that you can handle a snake and get away with it, but that snakes will no longer think of humans as the enemy, and no longer be feared by us as a symbol of Satan— we’ll all be living together in peace, the wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den, as we heard Isaiah say. So this verse is not really about what we can do today, but what life will be like when Jesus’s purpose is fulfilled.

But back to the resurrection. Mark’s account begins with three women arriving at the tomb in which Jesus’s body had been placed when it had been taken down from the cross. They are coming to the tomb because in those days it was part of a woman’s rôle in the family to prepare bodies for burial. They didn’t have undertakers; every family had to bury its own dead, and it was the women of the family who usually took care of that. Jesus was taken down from the cross late on Friday afternoon, and the Sabbath began at dusk on Friday, and they weren’t allowed to have anything to do with a dead body on the Sabbath; now it’s Sunday morning, beginning of a new week, and so they come at daybreak to pay their last respects in the time-honored way. They were expecting a problem; in v 3 they are wondering how they will be able to move the stone that blocks the entrance to the tomb. But when they get there, they find the stone already moved, and someone sitting inside, but the slab where the body should have been was empty. The person sitting there looked like a young man dressed in white. And in v 6 this person says to them, Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. Just as He told you. Everything will be just as He said it would be. Well, it’s all very well to say ‘don’t be alarmed,’ but they were alarmed, and they stayed alarmed, and actually ran away, trembling with astonishment.

We can understand that easily enough, I think. These were the women who had waited at the cross till Jesus finally breathed his last; look back at 15.40 and you’ll see the same three names. As far as we know only one of the male disciples who had sworn never to leave Jesus had come anywhere near the cross. These women had seen with their own eyes Jesus’s lifeless body taken down and put in that tomb, they knew better than anyone that Jesus was truly dead. They are the ideal witnesses to His resurrection because they also witnessed His death. This young man in white must either be a member of some gang of grave-robbers, which would have been scary enough, or he was telling the truth, which in many ways is even scarier. People just don’t come back to life once they’re dead, it just doesn’t happen, and even the thought that it might have happened to someone you know would be enough to put the wind up anyone. V 8 tells us that they fled, they ran for their lives. I think I’d have done the same.

V 8 also tells us they were are afraid to tell the other disciples that Jesus is risen and will see them in Galilee. They were afraid of being thought crazy, hysterical. Who could possibly believe them? Verses 10 and 11 tell us that after a while the women found the courage to tell the others, but their fears were confirmed, because the others didn’t believe them. Verses 12f tell us that two other disciples out walking in the country also saw Jesus alive, and they went back and told the rest about it, but they wouldn’t believe them either. And that doesn’t surprise us. It’s a story that we know is hard to believe, and that we can expect people to challenge. But that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to tell it. We are told to share it just as the women were. In v. 15, Jesus tells His followers, even the ones with hearts too hard to believe in the resurrection, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. The whole purpose of the church is to tell people that Jesus isn’t in the tomb, He is risen. We’re to tell this story to others, even if we’re sure they won’t believe it.

People can find lots of good-sounding reasons not to believe it. Sometimes people refuse to believe the Gospel accounts because they’re not all identical. That doesn’t make much sense. If the stories from different witnesses are all identical, you can bet the people telling the story got together to agree about what they would say! Eye-witness accounts always differ in detail, but usually agree in the main elements. The eye-witness accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are exactly like that; the differences over unimportant details are to me one of the most powerful arguments for the truth of the main elements. So we can tell the truth confidently, admitting that it’s hard to believe, but stressing that it really is true. That’s what the first Christians did. Twice in John’s account, he interrupts his story to say something along the lines of “I know it’s hard to believe, but I saw this with my own eyes, I’m telling you the truth”.  Peter often accompanied his telling of the story with variations of the same statement, and so did Paul. The New Testament was written by people who know it’s hard to believe, who didn’t expect their readers to be gullible, but who really wanted their readers to know that they were telling the truth. Paul says it is crucial: he wrote if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are wasting our time this morning if this is just a pretty story. If it isn’t literally true, then Christ is of no significance, and the world outside the church might as well go on ignoring Him and His teachings.

But if what these eye-witnesses are telling us so urgently is true, then what? What does the resurrection mean, if it is true? What it means, of course, is just what the young man in white says: everything will be just as Jesus said it would be—not just that He would rise again on the third day, but everything else He said, too. Of all the things that He could have been wrong about, rising from the dead was the most likely; if He was right about that, He’ll be right about the rest.

Jesus claimed to be the only Son of God, and He claimed that He was the one whom God had appointed to decide how every human being would spend for ever, whether they would live in eternal bliss or eternal emptiness. Those who trusted Him would live in eternal bliss, those who rejected Him would go the other way. Now if Jesus is dead, all these claims about Himself can be ignored. But if Jesus really did rise from the dead, if He really is still alive today, then He can’t be ignored. Everything will be just as He said. Jesus said that He came to earth that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). If He were dead now, His claim to give us life would be meaningless. If He can’t give Himself life, what can He do for us? But if He has proved that life is so much His to give, that it cannot be taken away from Him, then His offer of abundant life now, and eternal life to come, is not an empty offer. It means exactly what it says, and Jesus has proved beyond a shadow of doubt that He can give what He offers. Everything will be just as He said. He said that if we trust in Him our lives will be more than we ever dreamed possible, abundant life. In Mark’s account, those women are still telling the story; they’re telling us, today. This good news is for us. Everything will be just as He said. We can trust Him. Our lives are fulfilled when we put them in His hands. Let’s do it, and let’s never let anyone persuade us to take them back.

Sermon December 1: Mark’s Passion Narrative

Mark’s account of what is often referred to as Jesus’s passion takes up all of chapters 14 and 15. Peter’s ‘passion narrative’—remember how we saw at the beginning that it is Peter’s account of Jesus’s life and ministry that Mark has written down—begins with the incident with the ointment at Bethany, and continues through the last supper, Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, His betrayal by Judas and His capture in the garden, His trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter’s denial of Jesus, His appearance before the Roman governor, and finally His crucifixion, death and burial. I want to think about all of this by focussing on his trial, which begins in 14.53.

Jesus has been taken captive, and in v 53, He is brought to the High Priest’s house. What is waiting for Him there, according to v 55, is a gathering of members of the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish priests and elders that governed the Jewish people. It was also the contemporary Jewish version of the Supreme Court, the place where all the most important legal issues were ultimately decided. What Jesus faces at the High Priest’s house is not an official sitting of that court, because it’s the middle of the night. But some members of the Sanhedrin have been looking for a way to get rid of Jesus for quite some time. Remember back in chapter 3, The Pharisees… held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Both the religious and political arms of the government had determined to put Him out of the way, and the High Priest, the one responsible to the Romans for the good behaviour of the Jewish people, has obviously joined this group. It was the High Priest’s people who had taken Him from Gethsemane, and the leading members of the Council gather at the High Priest’s house to see if they can find an accusation that will stick.

According to v 55, they interview as many witnesses as they can find. Mark calls them ‘false witnesses’ because what they testify is not the truth; but in all probability they are not simply lying. What they say, v 58 says, is that they heard Jesus say I will destroy this temple that is made with hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands. There is an incident that they could be referring to, one described by John in his gospel, where Jesus is asked to prove He has the authority He claims to have, and He says Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. He didn’t say He would destroy it, He said that if they could destroy it, He could raise it again in three days. What the witnesses report seems a garbled version of that; and the fact that the various witnesses interviewed all tell a different story—their testimony did not agree, v 59—suggests they weren’t lying. If they were going to lie they’d have agreed on a story. So they find no cause to put Him to death, v 55 says.

So they try to get Jesus to incriminate Himself: What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus says nothing, literally not a word—until the High Priest brings up the issue that is the real cause of their anger against Him: Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One? Christ is Greek for Messiah, and the ‘blessed One’ was a common phrase the Rabbis used for God; ‘Are you the Messiah? are you the Son of God?’ Then at last Jesus speaks; He says, I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven. From their point of view, this is the jackpot—a confession. He’s claimed not just to be the Messiah, but to be God Himself. He couldn’t have incriminated Himself more completely. The High Priest turns to the rest and says What further witnesses do we need? You have heard His blasphemy. What is your decision? The kangaroo court is complete: they are not only prosecutors, judge and jury, but star witnesses as well!

It’s no surprise after what we saw in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that Jesus says exactly what is necessary to make sure that His purpose, to give his life as a ransom for many (10.45) would be achieved. What is your decision?  And they all condemned Him as deserving death. And some began to spit on Him and to cover His face and to strike Him.

It’s very important to understand why the religious establishment was so eager to get Him out of the way. Jesus makes it clear that everything that happens is inevitable, let the Scriptures be fulfilled, but that doesn’t mean that the people involved aren’t making real choices. Why did the religious leadership make this choice? After all, they all believed that a Messiah was coming one day; why, when Jesus announced Himself as that Messiah, did they not rejoice and join in His work?

One reason would be the fact that the coming of the Messiah would mean the end of the political power of the High Priest. In Old Testament times the High Priest had been a symbolic office without much in the way of earthly power; it was only under the Romans that this office had become one of real Government and power. When the Messiah came, every Jew believed he would exercise that power, and the High Priest, and those who had a place in the system he headed, would have gone back to what they had been before. So it was in their interest to dismiss messianic claims; political pressures trumped the claims of faith. A common enough event; I could give an example from much closer to home from just last week, but I won’t.

There was also the fact that there had been so many who had made this claim before. We know from other evidence that ever since the end of Jewish independence in the 6th century BC, people had appeared claiming to be the Messiah. It’s not surprising if, after so many false claims, their reaction was ‘oh, no, not another one’.

So at first sight, their reaction may seem understandable. But remember that this claimant was so different from any who had appeared before. All the others had been more or less the same thing: a tough fighting man who had gathered other fighting men around him, and was convinced God would help him drive out the hated foreigner and then put him in charge. The High Priest could always say ‘God bless you, we’ll be ready to serve you after you’ve won your victory,’ and then wait for the inevitable news that they were all dead. ‘Martyrdom operations’, as they are called today, are nothing new in the Middle East. But this Messiah was utterly unlike that. He had drawn no sword, had taught His followers to turn the other cheek when attacked, offered no resistance when armed men came to arrest Him, and had even acted as witness for the prosecution in the case against Himself. Why did none of this give the religious leaders of the people a moment’s pause?

The reason is told us in Acts 13:27. Paul is preaching the gospel in the Jewish synagogue in Antioch, and he says, Those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers—that’s the chief priests—because they did not recognize Him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning Him. The religious leaders of the people, the clergy and theologians, did not recognize that Jesus really was the Messiah because they did not think through the scriptures they read in the synagogue week after week. Jesus could see a level of meaning in the messianic prophecies that was not at all what had been traditionally thought. All the passages in Isaiah, for instance, that talk about someone suffering for the sins of others, like the one we heard from Isaiah—he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed… the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all—those had not been thought of as applying to the Messiah, but to the Jewish people as a suffering nation, and the hope of most people was that the Messiah would end this suffering. Jesus had read more carefully, and seen that these passages are for the Messiah as well as the people, and knew that the Messiah would suffer more than all of them, and suffer for the sake of God’s people. Isaiah 53.8, he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people—the people were not stricken for the transgression of the people, the whole point is one suffering for the sake of the many. Jesus had acted that out for the disciples that same night through the bread and the wine: here’s the bread, He said at the opening ceremony of the Passover meal He had shared with them, and this is my body, He told them. His words at the wine focus that more closely: this wine is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. The phrase ‘blood poured out’ almost always represents death; we’ve even combined them into a single word for death and slaughter, ‘bloodshed’. Jesus is again making it clear that He is going to die, and reminding them why—for the covenant God made with His people to forgive their sins. At the last supper, Jesus proclaimed His death to the disciples, and gave them a way to respond in faith, just as the woman with the ointment had already responded: ‘I understand,’ she said by her act of anointing, ‘and I thank you for what you are doing for me.’ When the disciples received that bread and drank that wine, it was their opportunity to say ‘I understand, and I accept what You are doing for me, Lord.’ And so it remains; when we receive that bread and wine next week, it will be our opportunity to accept Christ’s death for our salvation.

But the priests had not read the scriptures as carefully as Jesus, and would not listen to His teaching about them, and so they fulfilled the prophecies in the way they would least have wanted to. Instead of anointing Him as Messiah, they are the instruments of His oppression and judgment, cutting Him off out of the land of the living. He is anointed as Messiah not by the High Priest, but by a woman in Bethany.

If it was political considerations that motivated the religious authorities, it is ironic that the thing they sought to prevent by handing Him over to the Romans happened anyway: the Romans destroyed the Temple, and ended the power of the High Priesthood. Within a century of Jesus’s death there was no more High Priest, no more chief priests. And all because they wouldn’t read the scriptures with open minds. Or wouldn’t re-read them, to be accurate; they’d read those scriptures many times, so many that they were satisfied they had nothing more to learn from them, and so they became just words.  By their very familiarity the scriptures lost their power to open their eyes to God at work.

Let me suggest to you that this was not a unique event. That the scriptures still become so familiar, sometimes, to religious people, that we can no longer hear the voice of God in them, shining His light into our hearts and showing us the truth about ourselves that we’d rather not know. God’s word is fully analysed, labelled and put away, and as a result everything is tidy, and under control.

And yet, for all the tidiness, for all our alleged control, so often there seems something missing in our lives, a level of satisfaction that escapes us. If any of you ever feel like that, will you try giving the scriptures another look? Just go back and see if there’s something you haven’t fully understood, the way the High Priest didn’t fully understand those passages in Isaiah? Give God the chance to speak to you afresh, to take you deeper into the truth than you’ve been?

There are legends that say many of the actors in this drama did that. There’s a legend that Pilate, years after Jesus’s death, finally understood who Jesus was, and put his faith in Him. The movie about Barabbas, based on a book by a Swedish writer, speculates that Barabbas did the same thing. Nikos Kazantsakis did the same thing with Judas. I like to speculate that perhaps the High Priest did that too, and that the fulfillment of the priesthood, when it unknowingly offered the final sacrifice, offering the Son of God for the sins of the world, was its own salvation. That’s only speculation, of course; what is not speculation, but even more certain than death and taxes, is that the death of the Messiah is the means of salvation for all who put their trust in Him. It’s what Jesus came for, it’s what He accomplished, and the fruits of it are freely available still to anyone who needs new life, new hope.

Sermon November 24th: Approaching the End

Last week we looked at Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, where He had told the disciples three times that He would be put to death and after three days rise. In the few days between His arrival there and His crucifixion He teaches on several subjects: in 11.15 He teaches about the true purpose of the Temple, in 11.20 about the power of faith, in 12.1 He tells a parable about the rôle of the chosen people in God’s plan, in 12.13 about the relationship of Christians to the powers that be in the state, in 12.18 about resurrection, in 12.28 about loving God and neighbour, in 12.35 about the Messiah, and last thing in chapter 12 He teaches about giving our all for His work. All of it important stuff, but what Mark gives most space to is a teaching by Jesus that has always been considered one of His most challenging. It takes up the whole of chapter 13, which we just read, and that’s the one I want to look at this morning.

As Jesus and His disciples look at Jerusalem, the disciples are impressed by the magnificence of their temple, where God was worshipped by offering him animal sacrifices. Jesus tells them it will be thrown down, and the implication of the phrase is that it will be destroyed the way you destroy something harmful. Four of the disciples ask Him more about this privately, in two questions: our translation is when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished? The word ‘accomplished’ is a bit misleading, though, because it makes it sound as though the disciples are asking what comes down to a single question: when? When will it happen, what will be the sign that it’s about to happen? The Greek word it’s translating means ‘fulfilled’, in the sense of fulfilling an obligation or a promise or a prophecy. So there are two questions being asked: i) when will what you said, the destruction of the Temple, happen, and ii) how will we know when all these things are about to be fulfilled. All these things must mean more than the one thing Jesus mentioned, and Matthew’s account of the incident makes the disciples’ meaning clear: Jesus’s comment about the Temple is just about the same as in Mark, but the disciples’ questions are recorded as when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age? Matthew is explaining what the disciples mean. So the these things they are asking about the fulfilment of are the completion of human history, what are sometimes called the ‘end times’. They have assumed the destruction of the temple will be part of that. The Bible says quite a bit about the end of history aas we know it; several Old Testament books talk about it, one whole book of the New Testament, Revelation, is about it, and we have three accounts of Jesus Himself teaching about it.

Jesus begins his answer by warning the disciples about how easily they can be misled about these things and how careful they should be. And surely that applies to us too, only more so! In vv 5–8, He describes various things that we can expect to happen, and that will make us think the end must be close, but are in fact just the world we live in: people trying to take Jesus’s place, claiming that they are the voice of God, wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famine. All dramatic, but not signs of the end; v 7, the end is not yet. These are birth-pains, and just the beginning of them. A significant phrase, birth pains: although the disciples have asked about the end, and Jesus has confirmed that an end is coming, that end is in fact just a change. The things Jesus describes He does not call death throes, but birth pangs: God is bringing something new into being. Jesus’s words are words of hope and promise, even in the midst of fear and judgement.

Then in vv 9–13, He reminds them, and us, of what we should keep our mind on: preaching the gospel, sharing the good news. You hear a lot today about opposition to Christianity, even in America, and even at high levels of authority in the state; sometimes it seems that every religion is welcome in Western Civilisation except what used to be its own. But we were warned by Jesus about that 2,000 years ago; if we still aren’t ready to cope with it, shame on us. The Christian life means sharing in Christ’s sufferings, and we’re taught that not only here in Mark 13 but in almost every book of the New Testament. But that’s no reason to be afraid: v 11, when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. If it really is time for western Christians to face persecution, and I’m not sure of that myself, we don’t have to be afraid. And we certainly don’t have to be anxious beforehand—to worry now about something that hasn’t happened yet!

Then in v 14 He talks about what is a sign of the end, the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be. What the abomination of desolation means was clearly not obvious to all even in Mark’s day. Let the reader understand is not likely to be Jesus’s comment, but Mark’s: anyone who reads this to the church should know what it referred to. The phrase comes from a 2nd century BC translation of an Old Testament verse, Daniel 12.11, which most scholars agree is either a prophecy of or an account of the desecration of the altar in the Temple when a Greek warrior conquered Jerusalem in 168 BC and made sacrifices to Zeus on the same altar at which the Jews had offered sacrifices to Jehovah, the God and Father of our Lord. So it refers to something equally blasphemous in the future, but the grammar implies that Jesus is thinking of a person, not an event, the person who is behind whatever outward form sacrilege takes, the person who leads people away from Christ, something much worse than the destruction of a building. This will be the sign for intense tribulation for human beings, although no details of any kind are given, except that it will throw up a greater than usual crop of false teachers. V 24 shows that what the apostasy and the tribulations will be signs of is Christ’s coming in power to gather His people. And even though Jesus doesn’t mention it, let me just remind you that that will be a great and glorious day for His people! Don’t shrink from it!

Then in vv 28–31 the fig-tree image, implying that the disciples should know the spiritual world well enough that they can spot the end coming as easily as they can spot summer coming by the new leaves on the fig tree. But few of us do know the spiritual world that well, and Jesus’s words certainly are difficult to interpret in some ways. But enough is clear that we can safely say that in 2014 we are still in the birth pangs, and the best way to understand the rest is to keep growing spiritually.

As for the first question the disciples asked, about the time, that’s finally addressed in vv 32ff, but only for the end times, not for the birth pangs. The most important thing Jesus says appears to me to be concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Jesus Himself does not know, so we certainly can’t expect to, so back to the basic point: it’s like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come. We must stick to the work we’ve been given to do, and let God worry about these other things.

One of the most difficult parts of this passage is v 30, Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. If you look at what He’s just been talking about, you read verses like 24 and 25: the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And those things haven’t happened yet, even though many generations have passed since Jesus said these words; the sun hasn’t gone out, the moon still gives its light, the stars haven’t fallen or been shaken. So we tend to set the whole subject aside as irrelevant, or incomprehensible. But remember that Jesus is answering two separate questions here. In vv 5–13, Jesus is answering the first question, about the destruction of the magnificent buildings of the Temple. Although he never actually mentions the temple, the implication is that it happens in this period, and in fact it did happen in the wars He talks about. The temple was destroyed by the Romans when they put down a very violent Jewish rebellion in the year 70 AD—just about a generation later than Jesus was speaking. And all the other things He talks about in vv 5–13 were also happening by then, and are still going on. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us about some of those claiming to be the Messiah in Christ’s own time. We also know about many other wars of that time, as well as earthquakes and famines—the collection Paul talks about taking up in the church at Corinth was for Christians suffering in a famine—and the disciples had been brought before councils and governors and beaten in synagogues, betrayed by members of their own families, and the gospel was being preached to all nations in that it was being preached in what was then the capital of the world, Rome, where there were communities of people from every nation in the known world. These things, at least, did happen within that time—one of the disciples He was speaking to lived for fifteen or twenty years more. Jesus’s separate treatment of the birth pangs and the signs of the end may be the best explanation of these words. It’s the birth pangs that take place during the disciples’ generation, and which seem to be what we are still experiencing. The end is not yet.

Jesus goes on to say in v 33, Be on guard, keep awake and stay awake, vv 35 and 37. We should think about these things because Jesus’s words were not just for the four disciples present with Jesus during this conversation, but for all Christians, even for us today, v 37: What I say to you I say to all. And the best way to be on guard is to read His word, where His character and person are made known. Jesus made a prophecy about this too, in v 31: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. And here we are 2,000 years later, and His word still sells in the millions, and is read and studied by hundreds of millions, year after year. There is simply no better way to be on guard.

This whole chapter is a call for Christians to be clear-headed when all others are panicking, not thinking clearly. Don’t spend your time looking for Him, or trying to calculate the day He will come, but spend your time doing the things He wants you to do, loving God and neighbour, living in faith and sharing the faith, and then you’ll be ready when He comes no matter what the circumstances. That’s the kind of being on guard Jesus urged on the disciples in one of the last teaching opportunities He was to have with them in the physical sense, and which He continues to urge on us through His word. That’s the message of this whole chapter, and taking it to heart can only mean a more abundant life.

Sermon November 17: Jesus enters Jerusalem

Mark 10 completes Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, and Mark 11 begins with His entry into the city, which is often described as the ‘triumphal entry’. Although in chapters 9 and 10 Mark has been telling us about a succession of teaching opportunities, and we’ve looked at two or three of them, he has also been drawing attention to this journey, its destination and purpose, throughout chapters 9 and 10: 9.30, they went on… and passed through Galilee, but secretly, He did not want anyone to know, for He was teaching His disciples—He could not be distracted from His teaching work by crowds demanding miracles; 9.33 they came to Capernaum, and more teaching of the disciples there; 10.1 He left there and went… beyond the Jordan, where He taught about divorce and childlike faith; 10.17 as He was setting out on His journey He calls the rich young ruler to follow Him; 10.32 they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them, as though He had an appointment to keep; in 10.33 Jesus reminds the disciples we are going up to Jerusalem; 10.46, they came to Jericho, and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd—as though He had no time to stop so the crowd walks with Him at least a little way, and blind Bartimaeus, unlike the rich young ruler, does follow Jesus on the way; then in 11.1 as he approaches Bethany, a mile or so from the city gate, He prepares to enter the city where, as He has three times told the disciples during the journey, He will be put to death.

Most of us know the story of his entry into Jerusalem that day pretty well. Palm Sunday used to be pretty much a Roman-Catholic only celebration; Protestants dropped it at the Reformation. These days, though, many churches celebrate it by having everyone wave palms. The palms are actually the least important part of the day, as we’ll see, so let’s make sure we understand all that’s going on.

In 11.1 Mark tells us that Jesus sent two disciples into Bethany, and tells them exactly where they will find a ‘colt’, which in Greek can mean either a young horse or a young donkey—the context makes clear that donkey is what’s intended, so it should be translated ‘foal’—one that has never been ridden, and they are to untie it and bring it to Him. If anyone questions them, they are to say The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately. The disciples find the colt, are questioned, but the explanation Jesus told them to give is accepted and they bring Jesus the colt. Luke’s account is almost identical, except that there is no promise to return the colt. In Matthew’s account, it is a colt and a ‘son of’ a donkey, and there is no promise to return them. In John’s account, Jesus simply ‘finds’ a young donkey. So a lot of variation on how Jesus got the donkey; but no mistaking the bottom line: Jesus wanted and got a foal, a young donkey.

Mark then tells us that ‘they’, the two disciples, put their cloaks on the animal, and Jesus sat on it. Then ‘many’ spread cloaks on the road for the animal to walk on, while ‘others’ spread ‘long grass’ (‘leafy branches’ is not what Mark says) in the same way. Then presumably Jesus begins to ride the donkey towards Jerusalem, because those going before and those following are shouting Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! Then He enters Jerusalem and goes into the Temple. Luke tells almost the same story, except that there is no grass (no palms either), the disciples are the ones shouting Hosanna, and some Pharisees who are watching tell Jesus to keep the disciples quiet. Matthew’s version implies that Jesus somehow sat on both animals, and talks about branches from the trees rather than grass (still no palms). John’s account is where we get the palms, and is different in other ways: the crowd comes out of Jerusalem with palm branches looking for Jesus, and He seems to find the donkey and ride it in response.

Again, we’re forced by the variation in the details to concentrate on the bottom line, that Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna etc, while the disciples and people lay their the cloaks on the ground. John’s palms seem to function in the same way as the cloaks, which I’ll explain in a minute, so he’s telling the same basic story, but where he got the palm element from we don’t know. It’s possible some people had palm branches, but it wouldn’t have been many; for the feast of Tabernacles, which required palm branches, they had to bring them from the coast, because palms didn’t grow in Jerusalem. And Jesus is doing this in Passover week, in the spring, while the feast of Tabernacles is in the fall. So the palms are really a pretty minor and obscure part of the story.

The major part of the story is that Jesus and His disciples are making a very significant statement in this business with the donkey; Jesus by riding on the animal, and the disciples by their cloaks and Hosannas of praise, in both of which the crowd joins them. Let me explain the significance, because while it would have been very obvious to everyone present on that day, to us all these centuries later, it’s by no means so clear. What Jesus is doing is saying ‘I’m the Messiah’, and what the disciples are doing is saying ‘we believe He’s the Messiah’.

Remember how we’ve seen in Mark what scholars call the Messianic secret: Jesus not letting His rôle as the Messiah be discussed. He’s specifically told the disciples to tell no one, once they understood Who He was, and he often told those whom He healed to tell no one about their healing, in case people began to think He was the Messiah. Now, as He prepares to enter Jerusalem, this changes. It’s time to announce Who He is, and to do so in a very special way. His words when He told the disciples what to say if anyone question their taking of the foal, the Lord has need of it, were the beginning; it must have been a pretty clear signal to the disciples that the ‘say nothing to anyone’ policy had been abandoned. Jesus’s use of the title Lord of Himself could mean either that He is the Lord, or acts with the authority of the Lord, and by telling the disciples to use the word publicly, it’s clear that He is ready to be acclaimed as the Messiah, and the ride on the donkey does exactly that. It isn’t obvious to us how that worked, but it certainly was to the people of Jerusalem.

This was the beginning of Passover week, and Jerusalem would already have been filling up with people making their pilgrimage to the feast. And we’re not talking just a handful of people; according to some pretty reliable scholars, hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Jerusalem for the Passover, and the journey there was a pilgrimage, which had its own special rules. Walking was part of the pilgrimage; to ride on a donkey in this pilgrimage was a dramatic departure from normal practice, and could have had only one meaning: this person thinks he’s the Messiah. That’s not obvious to us, but it was to everyone there. Everyone knew that David had fled from Jerusalem by donkey when his rebellious son Absalom had seized the government and driven him out; and God had promised that when the Messiah, the obedient Son of David, came, he would come by donkey as he took the city back. Matthew even quotes the prophecy in his account.

Verse 8 makes it clear that many of the pilgrims understood this meaning, and as they joined in the disciples’ response to Jesus’s action, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David, Jesus’s ride would have turned into a spectacular demonstration. The road across the valley between Bethany and Jerusalem is visible from the walls of the city the whole way; and with the city already crowded with pilgrims, there would have been plenty of people watching from the walls as well as all those people on the road and camping out in tent cities by the road. The Hosannas, and the cloaks on the road, were a response to Jesus’s fulfilment of the ancient messianic prophecy, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass, a response that says ‘the promised Messiah is here!’ That’s also why they spread their cloaks on the road for the donkey to walk on. This was as familiar as the ‘red carpet’ of our own day: in II Kings 9:13, you can read about people laying their cloaks on the steps of Jerusalem as Jehu walks up them to be anointed as King. During the early 20th century, when Palestine was a British protectorate, people would occasionally lay down clothes for the horses of British officials to ride on. The tall grass was perhaps like hay, to keep the road clean. These actions are an explicit acknowledgement of Jesus’s acted messianic claim. Jesus made His approval of this act of praise very clear: when the Pharisees mentioned by Luke tell Him to keep the disciples quiet, He replies if they were to keep quiet, the very stones of the street would cry out. This parade has eternal spiritual significance.

Until now Jesus has been reluctant to claim the messiahship; now He claims it as explicitly and as publicly as possible. Why? Obviously it was not because He thought it was essential for us to know He was the Messiah in order to be saved by Him. If we were saved by knowing that, He would hardly have passed up so many other opportunities to make it clear. To understand why it was necessa to make this claim, we must remind ourselves of what Jesus had told the disciples that His purpose was. Jesus had told the disciples that He was indeed the promised Messiah, but that the Messiah was not coming to bring political freedom, but spiritual freedom, and for that He had to do one thing only: to die. Four times we’ve seen it already in Mark: 8.31, 9.31, 10.33, and 10.45. In 10.33, He told the disciples that this visit to Jerusalem that they are now making is the time when it will happen: we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death. In 10.45 He explains why: the Son of man… came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus came to Jerusalem to be killed, and His actions on what we call Palm Sunday made His death certain. He is already carrying His cross, digging His own grave. Quite deliberately, knowing exactly what He was doing, Jesus set in motion, with that donkey, the train of events that would lead to Good Friday. The response of the Jerusalem authorities would have to be His death, because otherwise their own security would be forfeit. The High Priest was the man through whom the Romans ran things in Jerusalem; he was the go-between for the Jewish people and their Roman rulers. If anything happens that the Romans regard as disorder, he loses his job. High Priests had been deposed by the Romans not long before for just such things. John’s account is explicit: the chief priests say What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on thus, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. And the high priest, Caiaphas, draws his famous conclusion, It is expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.

Jesus knew that His messianic claim would be misunderstood; He knew that people expected an earthly ruler, not a spiritual one. So while He was teaching His disciples the truth about Who He was, He downplayed all references to His messiahship. But now He had taught enough, and the time had come to die. And He could ensure His death by the simple step of claiming His messiahship, knowing that when the people hailed Him as Messiah, the Romans would see them acclaiming Him as King, a threatened coup d’état, and they would treat Him accordingly. Indeed, there was a man called Barabbas in jail on that very charge awaiting execution. Jesus knew that the High Priest would be bound by political considerations to seek His death at the hands of the Romans; if not, the High Priest himself might be suspected of sympathizing with a rebel.

And of course the High Priest would have to be the one to hand Jesus over to those who would kill Him. After all, it was the essence of the priestly rôle to deliver the death blow to the animals to be sacrificed, and it was the High Priest’s task to offer the three great sacrifices of the Jewish year, and on the day of atonement he entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of the atoning sacrifice and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat. Jesus had come to give His life as a ransom, an atoning sacrifice, for many; who else should offer Him up but the High Priest? So Jesus took the step that would leave the High Priest no choice. In the events of Good Friday, Jesus sometimes seems like the helpless one, but in reality He is in total control. Everything that is happening is happening because He initiated it. The High Priest, and Pilate, and the Roman soldiers, are the ones who are helpless, carrying out the tasks for which they were programmed. And ironically, the High Priest, in acting to protect His job, loses it: the epistle to the Hebrews say that Jesus offered the atoning sacrifice once for all when He offered up Himself (7:27). What looked like the High Priest offering the Messiah to the Romans was in fact Jesus becoming our great High Priest, offering Himself for the sins of the world. Well have Christians throughout history summed up that Scripture by speaking of Jesus as both priest and victim.

On Palm Sunday Jesus wrote His own death sentence. On Good Friday it would be carried out. On Easter Sunday, the new life that Christ’s death made possible would begin!

Sermon November 10th: Radical Servanthood

by Wes Rohrer

And James and John, the son of Zebedee, came up to Him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” And He said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, ”Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized ?… and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:35-39, 44)

In order to better understand the implications of this passage for us, it is helpful to place it in the context of the narrative of the rich young man and Jesus’ foretelling his passion and death to his disciples for the 3rd time in the preceding verses of Mark 10. Apparently in sincerity and with good intentions the rich young man – who seemed to have everything going for him in worldly terms – asked Jesus to give him the final and best treasure, the secret of internal life.  Jesus responded with a condensed version of the 10 Commandments: “You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery … etc.  The young man (perhaps with a hint of self-satisfaction) responded that he had been observant of the law all his young life. We might finish his unstated thought:  “So what else could be asked of me, really! I have always played by the rules and have nothing to be ashamed of…” Jesus (lovingly but perhaps wistfully anticipating the outcome)  informed the young man of the missing piece, the final task before claiming the ultimate reward – “give away all you have to the poor and follow me…”  The young man said no more but turned away, disheartened, perhaps astonished, that such an unreasonable barrier was erected between him and what he so clearly deserved.  I have always found this character to be a sympathetic figure – and suspect that Mark intended him to be. For who among us would not be stopped in our tracks by such a request: to literally give away all our material wealth, great or small, and follow Jesus without even knowing the length of the journey, a map of the terrain or the ultimate destination.  Who would have such faith? Yet the instruction was clear, direct and not to be ignored…

Soon thereafter in Mark 10: 32-34 on the road to Jerusalem, Jesus tells his disciples for the third time that he, the Son of Man would be delivered over to the authorities, condemned to death, would be mocked, tortured, and suffer brutally before dying a humiliating death by a punishment reserved for the worst offenders, thieves and murderers. This begs the question of what the disciples were thinking as they heard this prophecy again on route to the fulfillment of it.  One can only imagine that some might have dismissed Jesus’ warning as yet another parable most of which they found so puzzling.  Did he intend this to mean literal suffering and death, and if so would they share the same fate? Perhaps the Son of Man was a mysterious reference to someone other than their leader, Jesus.  Some might have wanted Him to change his travel plans, to return to Galilee or territory where He and they could travel in safety as unknown and nonthreatening wanderers.

We can only speculate how James and John framed Jesus’s warning but their subsequent reaction is telling. Instead of asking Jesus what they might do to support Him given this disturbing scenario or requesting further counsel or instructions, they turned the focus on themselves asking Jesus to grant them a favor, quite a great favor in fact. Might they place reservations for favored seats on either side of Jesus once the Christ claimed His supremacy and ascended to His throne? The arrogance of this request is daunting but is most telling as evidence that the disciples collectively were missing the point. They just didn’t understand the Gospel message, what Jesus expected of them as followers, the demands of discipleship, the nature of His Messiahship and the Kingdom of God.  Jesus provided the clues for deeper understanding of the conditions for redemption, salvation for rebirth; yet throughout the journey to the Cross they remained clueless.  Jesus’ response though almost certainly rooted in love may have carried a tone of exasperation – certainly this would be justified. Not only were the senior members of His disciples focused on political gamesmanship and favoritism, they clearly were missing the point of his mission and the implications for them as followers. Their knee-jerk response of compliance to Jesus’ challenge of whether they could drink from the same cup and experience the same baptism reinforces a conviction that they deeply misunderstood or choose to deny the implications of His broader message and specific prophecy of the anguish that lay ahead. The cup held the wine of vinegar offered to Christ on the cross in His agony while the baptism was that of blood, the rite of passage into His glory. And we know many of the disciples eventually died as martyrs to the faith. But at this point they could not see beyond their own interests and fears. In this they were all too human, they were us in their faithlessness, self-centeredness and limited capacity of discernment. Would any of us have done any better? Would we have taken up the challenge to share in His Jesus’ suffering or instead have become absorbed in bickering about who deserves the best seats around the throne?  Are we prepared in fact to endure suffering for our faith and in allegiance to a leader whose behavior in the Gospel accounts seems sometimes too passive, unimpressive (in terms of a show of might) and too often puzzling? In all candor we should not be too hard on the disciples in their confusion, reluctance and lack of steadfastness, for are we confident that we would have done much better?

After His challenge to the presumptuous disciples, Jesus proceeds to offer a lesson on leadership that serves both as response to James and John’s petition, as further explanation of his own Messiahship and as a template and challenge for the disciples to take up God’s mission once He has left them physically: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”  Jesus’ message must have been perplexing to the disciples as it contained a radical counter-cultural message. Not only does it reverse first and last, but Jesus challenges the very logic of hierarchy at least in secular terms. Leadership during the Roman era meant power and its display, the subjugation and willing compliance of the weak in order to receive protection from the powerful.  Freedom was reduced to the ability to struggle to survive within rigid political and cultural constraints enforced by the Jewish leadership as proxies for the Roman imperial power. So the ordering of first and least was clear to both those at the top and bottom – an ordering that was reinforced whenever someone dared to challenge the power structure as Jesus did so dramatically.

The disciples must have wondered even if not voiced the question:  “So what is required of me to be a servant to others?” And they likely recoiled from the very notion that they would be subjected to slavery, to renounce the limited freedom they did enjoy.

This passage resonated with me especially as I have been a student of leadership, theory and practice, much of my career.  It can be argued that more has been written about leadership than any other aspect of organization and management. Thousands of serious articles have been published about leadership traits, styles, models and the variables affecting leadership. Manuals for effective leadership appear prominently in the airport news kiosks: The One-Minute Guide to Leadership, 7 Principles of Effective Leadership, Dare to Be A Great Leader, Hot Yoga and the Inner Leader.  Indeed an approach to Servant Leadership has become recognized as a valid model of leadership among those who study organization behavior, based on the work of Greenleaf.  This scholar based his model on his reading of Herman Hesse’s novel Journey to the East in which a servant who performs menial tasks and provides entertainment for a group of travelers serves as the key figure. When he becomes separated from the group not to return, the group becomes dysfunctional and eventually abandon their journey. Without recognizing it the servant had performed as the informal leader without whose service and spirit the group could not sustain its mission and coherence. Greenleaf’s core theme is that not only must the effective leader focus on serving the needs of his followers in order for the team to be effective,  she must also look and act beyond the limits of the group and exercise a social responsibility of justice, to address the inequities that persist locally and globally. This recognizes that leadership cannot fully be understood or exercised in a vacuum but only in a community context in which superordinate values trump narrow interests of the leader and even of the organization he serves.

So what links this model of Servant Leadership with Mark’s narrative and what are the implications for us as members of the Body of Christ, as followers of Him and for some among us, leaders of others?

If God the Father demanded (and offered) the sacrifice of His Son what less would be required of his followers? If we apply this to ourselves as flawed followers in the context of 21st Century Western society, are the implications and expectations any different?  We hear encouragement from the pulpit and devotional tracts to have a “servant’s heart” and this seems a comfortable message, perhaps one we can relate to by the small acts of  kindness and generosity we do without fanfare throughout the course of our day.  Some go beyond this by formalizing service as a regular part of their routine:  monthly participation in direct food distribution through the Community Food Bank to those whose resources won’t provide a month’s worth of nutritious food for their families or volunteering to tutor inner-city kids who have limited family resources. Indeed such acts of Servanthood are unarguably consistent with the Gospel message and the broad theme of Judeo-Christian ethics as expressed in the letter of James: “What good is it, my brothers [and sisters], if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food… [James 2:14-15] and you say, passing by: “I have no change but next time… I can’t possibly help them all… She will just use it for drugs or booze, anyway… Charity has its place, of course, but I’m committed to addressing the Big Picture, the underlying systemic causes… “

Have we acted in this way as our response to the homeless guy stationed in front of McDonald’s, the aggressive pan-handler accosting us with the only tool available to him by leveraging our guilt and resolving this temporary inconvenience?  Well, I certainly have done so, resorting to similar rationalizations, some of which are quite sound and defensible.  Yet Jesus’ call to radical servanthood suggested by the image of slavery – a special challenge given the offensiveness of the very concept to us in the 21st Century – begs the question of how far we most go in demonstrating a servant’s heart, let alone becoming a slave to all others…  This seems to go far beyond the expectation that we merely empathize and respond to the outstretched hand or the mumbled request only when it’s really convenient to do so, when we have the inclination, spare time or spare change?  Do we dare to accept the Gospel challenge of radical servanthood  to develop the habits, the predisposition, the commitment to our brothers and sisters – both those with whom we are comfortable and compatible and those who we would rather not associate and even recoil from – or must we like the rich young man, disheartened by the sacrifice, just sadly walk away [Mark 9:22]?

What cup are we asked to drink and what are the implications of the baptism we have experienced? What is our role in fulfilling God’s mission and establishing His Kingdom?

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