The Myth of the Sacred and the Secular

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“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the incarnation.”—Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

The Almighty and the Helpless

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“The Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the Incarnation.” ~J.I. Packer

Living in the Gaps

I am always fascinated by the “gaps” in the Bible. The span of time between recorded episodes. The ones where we are left to guess or imagine what was going on.

This is not to say that what we have in the Bible (i.e., special revelation) is insufficient or not enough. It’s thoroughly sufficient for everything that we need.

But it’s the gaps as well as the explicitly stated that interest me.

For example, when reading through the narrative of Abraham in Genesis 12-25, we really only are privy to a few episodes, even just conversations, of the patriarch and his dealings with God. There’s a lot left unspoken in-between.

We are introduced to him in Genesis 12 as at that point a relatively elderly man, living with his wife in his father’s household. When he goes the way of the departed in Genesis 25, we are told that he died in a “good old age” surrounded by his children over the years.

And in Genesis 24, when he sends his servant out to find a wife for his son Isaac, we are told that the servant is sent out with ten camels, a remarkable display of Abraham’s wealth.

Now, for those reading the story, we are allowed to see a few episodes of how Abraham accrued such wealth. But there are decades left blank in between those few recorded aspects of Abraham’s life.

What was going on in the gaps?

I’ll tell you.

Abraham was living an ordinary, mundane, but striving for faithfulness kind of life.

Too often, we fixate on just the episodes that are “revealed” when teaching the Bible. And what can happen is that someone identifies with that particular story, and hears the call of God to go and leave his particular situation and follows God not knowing where exactly (think overseas missionaries responding to a sermon on Genesis 12 after a missions conference), and others don’t (think about a school teacher, or doctor, hearing the same sermon at the same event).

All Scripture is tied and connected to Jesus as the true and proper fulfillment of it’s meaning. But God’s Word also speaks to how we respond to that particular aspect of His revelation and Christ’s fulfillment.

Perhaps we need to take some time, and with a sanctified imagination, allow some of the “gaps” to speak just as clearly as that which is clearly revealed in Scripture.

Maybe the takeaway isn’t always – “leave and go” (Genesis 12)

Maybe there are times and season where it’s – “stay and remain faithful to the One who is faithful to you!” (the gaps between Genesis 12-25).

Something Greater is Here (Mark 2:3-17)

Paralytic Man Lowered in the Midst of the Crowds Before Jesus

Jesus continues his public ministry and the crowds keep coming to him.  People are expecting him to do great and good works and they can’t get enough.  That’s what makes this episode about a man being lowered into the middle of a very crowded house so fascinating.  First, imagine you’re crowded into the home of Jesus along with everyone else, and suddenly you notice part of the roof collapsing.

Homes in Jesus’ day in Capernaum would have been constructed largely with some wooden beams and mud-patch work for the roof.  As this band of friends climbed up the roof and began to carve into the mud in order to lower their paralytic friend, they undoubtedly would have caused a commotion down below.  Mud pieces falling from the ceiling, maybe bits of straw or hay scattering around the room.  As their eyes were directed upwards, they notice several sets of eyes in a circle in the newly formed skylight, and then a man being lowered on a mat. You may think, “What never!” or “What boldness!” but the fact is that everybody notices and everyone is thinking something.

What do you think Jesus was thinking?  It was after all his home that just had the roof torn open so that a helpless man could get help.  Jesus tells us what he was thinking: while some were thinking “What nerve!” and others were thinking “What boldness!” Jesus was thinking “What faith!”  These men believed that if they could just get their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus, his life would be different.  He would be healed.  He wouldn’t need to be carried along by his friends anymore.  He could be restored to a healthy, vibrant life.  And they were right.  That is what happens when people meet Jesus.  With Jesus, life gets restored and things get set back to the way they are supposed to be.

So Jesus speaks to the paralytic man and says, ”Be healed?”  No!  He tells the man that his “sins are forgiven.”  What was Jesus doing here?  Jesus is meeting the man’s need in a way that neither the man, nor his friends, nor anyone else in the house expected – he is meeting his need for forgiveness of sin.  Tim Keller is helpful in understanding what is going on when he writes:

Jesus knows something the man doesn’t know—that he has a much bigger problem than his physical condition. Jesus is saying to him, “I understand your problems. I have seen your suffering. I’m going to get to that. But please realize that the main problem in a person’s life is never his suffering; it’s his sin.” If you find Jesus’s response offensive, please at least consider this: If someone says to you, “The main problem in your life is not what’s happened to you, not what people have done to you; your main problem is the way you’ve responded to that”—ironically, that’s empowering. Why? Because you can’t do very much about what’s happened to you or about what other people are doing—but you can do something about yourself. When the Bible talks about sin it is not just referring to the bad things we do. It’s not just lying or lust or whatever the case may be—it is ignoring God in the world he has made; it’s rebelling against him by living without reference to him. It’s saying, “I will decide exactly how I live my life.” And Jesus says that is our main problem. (Tim Keller, King’s Cross, 25-26)

Jesus isn’t denying that the man needs healing in a physical sense, but he is challenging everyone’s notion that Jesus is a really good guy, doing some really good things.  He’s more than that. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright links the authority Jesus claims for himself, with the authority promised to “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7, where:

There, ‘one like a son of man’ is the representative of God’s true people. He is opposed by the forces of evil; but God vindicates him, rescues him, proves him to be in the right, and gives him authority. In Daniel, this authority enables him to dispense God’s judgment. Here, in a fascinating twist, he has authority to dispense God’s forgiveness. (N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 17).

Jesus by forgiving the man’s sins is claiming to be the one promised by God to battle against the forces of evil that conspire against God and His people.  Jesus is saying that He’s one with the authority of God, and this demands a response.

Well this episode certainly provoked a response among the scribes, or religious professionals.  They got the message and were questioning whether Jesus had the authority to do what he was claiming to do.  If this man’s problem was a sin-problem, then his friends should have taken him through the proper channels.  Forgiveness is something only God can offer, and if that was what this man needed, he needed to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, in front of the credentialed priests; not a wandering preacher and healer in his home?

Jesus does the unthinkable.  He doesn’t just claim this authority for himself, but he wields it.  He executes his authority and the result is the man who was once paralyzed, now picks up his mat and walks away.  Something greater than the Temple and someone greater than their priests is now here.

Mark tells us that “they were all amazed and glorified God” and said “We never say anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12).  That’s because no one and nothing like Jesus had ever been seen before. He is the long-awaited “one like a son of man” to oppose evil in all it’s forms, and do for God’s people what they could not do for themselves.

What Mattered Most to Jesus: Miracles or Message? (Mark 2:1-2)

Jesus Preaching to the Crowd

After traveling to the villages nearby (cf. Mark 1:38-39), Jesus returns to Capernaum and is welcomed by many people gathering at this home.  So many people in fact that there was not enough room for them and they spilled out past the doorway.

What do you think the crowds wanted?  What drove them to crowd and clamor around Jesus so much?  Jesus has begun his public ministry and is used to drawing a crowd.  Mostly what drew people were the healings and exorcisms he had performed.

So it’s funny that Jesus “preaches the word” to them.  This is a classic moment of Jesus having the crowd in the palm of his hand.  If he wanted more popularity, more attention, and more people flocking to him, why not simply do more healings, more exorcisms, more spectacular good works and miracles?  Why preach to them?

Jesus has been going around preaching the good news – the gospel – of the kingdom of God, so preaching was important.  And great miracles and good works accompanied it.  These miracles and good works were important, but they weren’t central.  What was central was that Jesus is a new kind of king, setting up his new kingdom and now everyone is being challenged to respond to this king.

The healings, the miracles, the exorcisms and the all-around good works were all bearing out the implications of this kingdom, but they were not in and of themselves the central or primary thing.  Jesus was.

Who does Jesus Think He Is? (Mark 1:16-20)

Jesus Calling the Fishermen to be His Disciples

The next episode we read about is the calling of the disciples (vv. 16-20).  This is fascinating because in Jesus’ day a Rabbi (or Teacher) didn’t’ choose disciples; they chose him.  Already we are being introduced to someone who has a different kind of authority.  Might he be up to something different than the teachers, instructors, Rabbi’s of his day as well?  Time will tell.

The men he chooses to follow him are fisherman at work at that moment.  A simple call from Jesus though, and these men drop everything to follow him.  Before you jump to a conclusion that this was an opportunity they had been waiting for, keep in mind how small family businesses tend to work in more tribal societies.  It is not uncommon for a business to stay in the family for generations, even perhaps centuries.  There is no telling how long these men had been fisherman.  We are more safe in assuming that this was more than a 9-5 job; this was their way of like.  It was what they knew.  It was where they excelled.  It was what had been handed down to them from generation, to generation, to generation.

But there’s more.  Fishermen were actually considered to be fairly wealthy and had some level of political or at least popular authority.  We know from ancient souces that:

[F]ishermen were usually wealthy, and the high price of fish was a common source of material in Greek comedy, and is noted, for example, in IG II2 (1913; repr. 1974) 1103. Fishing guilds wielded much political power, and even where the fishing industry was not large enough to warrant such a guild, fishing co-operatives were formed. (Dr. A. Nyland, Mark: The Source New Testament with Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning)

This was more than just a familiar and comfortable way of life; it was also fairly lucrative.  There weren’t government incentives to stimulate the economy through small businesses.  If you or your family had a trade that provided a good or service to the community such as fishing, you had resources at your disposal.

But it doesn’t end there.  We are told that James and John actually left their father.  This seems cold and heartless at first glance.  Who could do such a thing, or call for such a thing?  And that’s the question we should be asking.

The truth is that Jesus is calling them to do such a thing because he is the king and the king demands complete, and total allegiance.  The disciples never left their family or their career or their income out of spite; they did so because the king called for their whole-hearted allegiance to himself.  The call to them was to give up the “old family business” in order to pursue a new one.  One wonders how the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day received this message, or the Roman authorities for that matter.  Instead of being about religious worship sites (like the Temple) or practices (like circumcision, hand-washing, purity codes in the Jewish religious tradition), or even about securing world peace by being the world’s super-power (Pax Romana) or placating any and every god imaginable, including the people en mass (in the pantheon or coliseum tradition of the Roman empire), Jesus is calling others to follow him into a new vocation.  This entails full-bodied, whole-hearted commitment.  The gospel is not about choosing or selecting the right pathway to life; it’s about following the king who claims absolute authority over every area of our life.

What is this king about?  He answers briefly that what these fisherman are to do now is similar, but different; they are to be fishers of men.  This phrase for some may be synonymous with “evangelism” and entail a strict element of “conversion.”  Those elements are there, but before we load them with the negative connotations they have come to take on in our day, we would do well to think about what it means to fish – it means bringing a fish from one realm into another.

Now if this crossing over from one realm to another were a bad thing, then the negative connotation is warranted.  But if its not just a good thing, but the very best thing, then that’s a different story. Fishermen, essentially, take a fish from living in a realm of water, to a realm where they die (land).  Jesus comes and reverses that.  He calls them to become fishers of men who are already in a ream of darkness and chaos – what the typical Jewish connotation was for “sea” or other large bodies of water (cf. (cf. Genesis 1:1-2. See also Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4ff.; Amos 4:2) and bring them into a realm of light and life.  The apostle Paul would say something similar to this in his letter to the Colossians: “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”

Jesus’ aim is to bring people into this kingdom, and he calls for us to follow him and participate in this with him.

What does Jesus’ Kingdom Have to Do with Original Creation? (Mark 1:9-11)

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:11

The Spirit descending like a dove

With those words, we read that the Spirit descends like a dove and rests on Jesus.  Its interesting to note the rarity of likening the Spirit to a dove.  In many works of art, we often see this imagery being employed: as Jesus is baptized, we see a dove in the sky.  Tim Keller makes an interesting observation about this:

In the sacred writings of Judaism there is only one place where the Spirit of God is likened to a dove, and that is in the Targums, the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jews of Mark’s time read. In the creation account, the book of Genesis 1:2 says that the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters. The Hebrew verb here means “flutter”: the Spirit fluttered over the face of the waters. To capture this vivid image, the rabbis translated the passage for the Targums like this: “And the earth was without form and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttered above the face of the waters like a dove, and God spoke: ‘Let there be light.’” There are three parties active in the creation of the world: God, God’s Spirit, and God’s Word, through which he creates. The same three parties are present at Jesus’s baptism: the Father, who is the voice; the Son, who is the Word; and the Spirit fluttering like a dove. (Tim Keller, King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus, 3).

Jesus shows up and the same parties that were present in the creation of the world are present at the baptism of Jesus.  Why?

This is the thing we’ve been waiting for.  Ever since the fall the world has been in need of repair and restoration, and this would only come by God’s redemption.  What man broke in the Garden, God promised to buy back (cf. Genesis 3:15).  Now, it seems, is the time for this event to come into reality. “Just as the original creation of the world was a project of the triune God, Mark says, so the redemption of the world, the rescue and renewal of all things that is beginning now with the arrival of the King, is also a project of the triune God.” (Keller, King’s Cross, 5).

We should be prepared for something as big, wide, beautiful and cosmic as the original creation to occur through the person and work of Jesus.


When God tears into reality, do you hear Him? (Mark 1:9-11)

Jesus being Baptized by John

Jesus arrives and is baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist.  Immediately we are told that he, John the Baptist, “saw the heavens being torn open,” (v. 10).  This doesn’t mean that a little door in the sky suddenly opened up so that God can send us a message from “up there” in Heaven.  “Heaven” in the Bible means more the dimension of God’s active engagement with our reality that we are often oblivious too.  Its more like an invisible curtain, right in front of us, that gets pulled back so that we can see something that is occurring before our very eyes.  New Testament scholar Richard Hays as written:

First, the world according to Mark is a world torn open by God.  From the moment when the heavens are torn apart (shizomenous) at Jesus’ baptism (1:10) to the moment when the curtain of the Temple is torn (eschisthe) in two at his death (15:38), this is a story of God’s powerful incursion into the created order. (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 88.).

N.T. Wright has said “A good deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different reality even when we can’t see it.” (N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 5.). And what do we hear that accompanies this tearing into our reality by this different way of seeing things:

 “Behold My Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Can you even imagine hearing that from God? Try reading that sentence, with your own name at the start, and reflect on God saying that to you.  Can you hear it?  How could this be true of you and I?

It’s true for one simple reason – Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah is one who represents His people.  He is the anointed one who comes and achieves and does for his people what his people couldn’t do for themselves (see Daniel 9).  Sure, the Old Testament is full of figures who served somewhat in this capacity (like David defeating Goliath and winning a victory for the entire people of Israel, 1 Samuel 17), but none quite measure up to this one who would come. With Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, what is true of him becomes true for those who believe in Him.

How to be “Fit” for God’s Kingdom (Mark 1:1-8)

Joachim Patinir's landscape with St. John the Baptist Preaching

Out in the wilderness, along the bank of the Jordan river, we are introduced to a mesmerizing figure.  His name is John the Baptist, and what he is doing could be likened to a cultural wake-up call. God’s people the Israelites find themselves under yet another nations occupation – this time the Romans.  When this had happened before, it was on account of God’s people sinning, or turning away from their God to go after other gods.  One way to describe this would be: they left their ultimate source of love and devotion to go to something/someone else.  They would be lulled away from their fervent devotion to Yahweh by the allure of another hope, and when that happened, God’s people would wait until the time Yahweh would remember them and visit them, and bring them back into their land and ultimately a right relationship with him.

And here we have John the Baptist in effect saying: “Time to stop dreaming and face not just any other day, but perhaps the most significant day of the rest of your life, even the most significant day in the history of the world.” That was John’s message.

What did this mean for those standing on the bank of the Jordan that day?  Both John and Jesus talk of repentance – both in preparation for the coming kingdom and as a response to the arrival of the kingdom.  But what would repentance have looked like?  Some of us today might answer, “It means to stop sinning” or “live as God’s people should live.” But it’s interesting to note that John and Jesus were both speaking to God’s people; what did it mean for them to “stop sinning” or “live as God’s people”?

Jesus’ contemporaries had lived a life that declared that Yahweh was their King, but functionally they lived with other things placed above Him.  They had other things as more important.  Things like their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws, their customs and traditions.  Part of this was a long list and series of washings that had to occur to “purify” or “cleanse” them from any contamination they may have come in contact with.  How can something defiled be acceptable to someone Holy, like God?  For those Israelites, this was a simple matter of washing your hands, but for a Gentile, the only way to be allowed to participate in the worship of God (and with it the life of God’s people) was to be baptized – whole person “cleansing” whether by effusion or immersion).  This was how a Gentile could become “clean”.

Now John the Baptist is preaching a ministry of baptism for everybody – Jew and Gentile alike – for the forgiveness of sins.  This is scandalizing.  Your pedigree no longer mattered.  Your moral record no longer mattered.  It’s good that you washed your hands, but that’s not going to cut it anymore.  Something new is happening, and with that new thing, only complete newness is acceptable.

The only way to be “fit” for the kingdom of God is through a radical display of saving grace.  The kind of grace that eclipses the baptism of John the Baptist; one that not only cleanses from sin, but gives the Holy Spirit.  Compared to that, no one is even worthy to untie his sandals.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Read Mark 1:1-13.  How does John seek to prepare the people for Jesus’ coming? (vv. 1-8)?
  2. Would you say that you are “shocked” or “awakened” by the message of the gospel?  If not, how do you feel about the gospel?  If so, why is that?

The Beauty of Jesus in the Mess of Our Lives

If you caught it, there is a subtle allusion to the Nickel Creek song “The Beauty and The Mess” that I see the quote below pick up and relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This theme runs rampant in lots of other musicians work (U2′s “Grace”, Johnny Cash’s cover and dare I say Nine Inch Nails original “Hurt“, even Mumford & Sons “The Cave“).

 

They gave him a manger for a cradle,
a carpenter’s bench for a pulpit,
thorns for a crown,

and a cross for a throne.

 

He took them and made them his glory.

- William E. Orchard

It’s the theme of the gospel, and it can be seen and read in every page of the Bible. The theme that God is able to bring such ugly, messed up, broken-down circumstances to a beautiful resolution.

It’s why it’s funny to me that what a lot of artists get as true, most people in church do not.

Most of us who go to church and would consider ourselves Christians, if we re honest with ourselves, functionally believe that God is really only in the good stuff – good circumstances, good relationships, good job situations, good family dynamics, etc. And so if anything is broken, messed up and ugly, God can’t have anything to do with it.

We functionally believe that if God is with us, everything should be going well, according to our definition of “well” and our interpretation of our circumstances.

The incarnation, life and death of Jesus Christ turns that wisdom on its head.