Afflicting the Comfortable

Advent 2017

December 15

Mark 6:14-29

John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.

It has been said that good preaching often comforts the afflicted but must sometimes afflict the comfortable. We fallen and sinful human beings find it all too easy to get cozy in our sins. When this happens what we need is not the warm, comforting voice of love but rather love’s loud voice of judgment. As counterintuitive as it sounds, the most gracious thing God can do for us sometimes is to let experience his judgment. For this can rouse out of our sins and set us on the path of grace and holiness once more. Sometimes we need to encounter the voice of judgment, if we ever have a chance at hearing rightly the voice of mercy.

Kendall Harmon tells of Susan Howatch, who wrote fat, racy novels in the 1970s. She had it all—fame and fortune. She was “on a roll” until something happened that caused her life to fall apart. Her marriage came unglued, and then her thirteen year old daughter informed her that she would rather live with her father. Susan was stunned. She reflected later on, “It made me think about everything. I felt a complete failure as a mother. Religious conversions come in all shapes and sizes and mine was not a Road to Damascus, but a cumulative effect…It as the most alienating, destabilizing experience. All the things I thought important, like money and success, weren’t important at all. God had stripped me of everything.”

What happened to Susan Howatch? Kendall Harmon explains, “Susan met Jesus Christ in judgment, and it was the greatest blessing in her life. She reoriented her life with a new foundation and is now an even more successful novelist.” Susan heard the voice of judgment and then the voice of grace and mercy.

John the Baptist has been calling out with the voice of judgment to Herod and Herodias who are in an illicit marriage. While Herod is somewhat perplexed by the voice of judgment, he longs to hear more. But Herodias despises this voice and seeks to silence it—by murder, if necessary. She prevails, but in doing so she loses. For by silencing the voice of judgment, she will never hear the voice of grace and mercy, like Susan Howatch did. John afflicted the comfortable, but because this was not received, Jesus couldn’t comfort the afflicted.

We, too, often try to silence the wholesome voice of judgment. We ignore it. We avoid troublesome passages of Scripture. We tune out a sermon that strikes too close to home. We tell ourselves that God isn’t concerned with our “small sins”. We compare ourselves with “worse sinners.” We ignore the guilt until the feeling of guilt goes away.

Don’t do this! Listen to the voice of God, whether it comforts or afflicts. If it afflicts, you can be sure that even so it is the voice of love which is seeking to bring you, by and by, to the place of comfort, even if by an arduous path.




What Will the Lord Find?

Advent 2017

December 14, 2017

Read Mark 6:1-13

“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5,6)

“When the Lord Jesus returns at the Second Advent, his glorious second coming, what will he find among his people? Will he find the results of a people, his people, manifesting the lives and work of a people operating in great faith or will he find a people, his people, manifesting lives indicating a great lack of faith?” One result leads to the glory of God’s people while the other leads to their shame.

The sobering truth is that there is great power in “faith” and equally so, great power in a “lack of faith”. If we were to visit our kitchen spice rack and open a container of “whole mustard seeds” we would easily see how small they really are. But Jesus tells us in Matthew 17:20 “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” The power of faith to “move mountains”. Jesus was visiting his own home town and like all his other visitations he was eager to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom and bring blessings, healings and deliverance. But the lack of faith among his own people, his own neighbors, restrained his power to do so. “Unbelief”, the “lack of faith” successfully thwarted the very power of God to do good. “And he was amazed at their lack of faith.”

In contrast, when we read of the Roman Centurion’s faith, as recorded in Matthew 8:5, we discover that Jesus was equally amazed, saying, “When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith’” (v.10). Our English word amazed does not accurately convey the force of the Greek rendering, ekstasis, which tells us that Jesus was absolutely shocked by the lack of faith of his own people and the “great faith” of this Gentile soldier.

We read of a synagogue ruler coming to Jesus to heal his dying daughter, a Syrophoenician woman, a foreigner, coming to Jesus seeking deliverance for her daughter from an evil spirit, the blind Bartimaeus crying out loudly for Jesus to come and have mercy on him and the woman with an issue of blood for twelve years saying within her heart, “If I but touch his robe, I will be healed”. Faith, great faith, desperate faith of those in great need who were not ashamed to fall down at the feet of Jesus and make their desires known.

The power of “faith” or “lack of”. It is the key to release the limitless power and blessings of heaven or the power to restrain all the good that God desires to pour out upon his Church, his people. If the faith of the people is weak then the ministry of the Church is weak or at worst powerless. And so the question is asked, “If the Lord returns this Advent season, what will he find?” Or more pointedly, “If the Lord returns to our church, what will he find?”

Do Not Fear

Advent 2017

December 13

Mark 5:21-end

“Do not fear, only believe.” Mark 5:36b

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was healing.  In yesterday’s reading, Jesus healed a man spiritually by casting out a demon, and in today’s reading He physically heals two women, one older and one younger.

The older woman had an issue of blood that had lasted twelve years and she had spent everything she had seeking a cure.  To have an issue of blood was both physically and socially devastating.  The consistent loss of blood would be physically tiring to live with and care for.  It would also render her unclean and limit her ability to have contact with other people.  Her struggle had left her broken, tired, hopeless and alone.  To have that kind of struggle for twelve years is a terrible burden.

Have you ever been the older woman?  Seeking relief, maybe even for years, and finding none?  Feeling helpless, hopeless, and alone? Feeling like you’ve tried everything, but nothing worked?

But she also had faith.  She went to Jesus to merely touch the hem of His robe.  She believed His power was so great that she only needed a touch.  And she was right!  Such is the power of Jesus that but a touch renders us whole.  The challenge for most of us is that we don’t often experience that kind of power.  Why?  While there is no simple answer to that, it ultimately comes down to trusting that He knows both what we are going through and what we need.

More often, I think we experience Jesus’ power the way the young girl did: unexpectedly and at the behest of another.  She was dead.  She wasn’t asking for anything.  In fact, it was her father, Jairus, asking for her healing as she was at the point of death.  Not only that, but thanks to the delay brought on by the older woman, he was forced to trust that Jesus could heal the dead.

Does that sound familiar?  He sought Jesus out for healing, but it didn’t work out the way he wanted.  His daughter died.

But Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Standing in the face of death, of difficulty we cannot overcome, do not fear, only believe that Jesus has power over both life and death.  What a word to cling to in life: do not fear, only believe.

Jesus did answer Jairus’ request for his daughter, but not without asking Jairus to trust Him.  Isn’t that so often the case?  We want quick and easy responses that don’t require a deep faith, but Jesus withholds the answer precisely in order to cultivate within us a deep faith.  It seems that we are called to only believe in His love and power in order to overcome fear and anxiety.

And isn’t it also so often the case that Jesus answers our prayers for others, but seems silent in response to our prayers for ourselves?  Why is that?  Perhaps it is that we were not created to live this life alone, that we are created to need both God and neighbor.  Perhaps there is something very good about receiving help.  If Jesus answered every one of our prayers for ourselves without our ever needing to turn to another for help, we would almost undoubtedly try to live this life without ever having to need or trust anyone else.  But when we open ourselves to others, when we admit our needs, when we ask for help, not only do we see the power of Jesus, but we find companions on the way.

Where are you seeking healing from Jesus?  Perhaps He is calling you to touch the hem of His robe.  Perhaps He is calling you to open yourself to asking others to pray for you.  But without a doubt, He is calling you not to fear, but only believe in His love and power.

Freedom from Bondage

Advent 2017

December 12

Mark 5:1-20

And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. Mark 5:15

During my Diaconal studies, one of my projects, was to attend a temple, mosque, or synagogue and ask questions of the person in charge concerning their beliefs and, if possible, observe a service or prayer meeting.  I chose to attend a local Hindu Temple. The first thing I noticed was the priest going to the front of the temple, opening a curtain, which revealed a number of statues.  He then went to a bell, which he rang three times.  After finishing his duties, I asked what the purpose was for ringing the bell.  He replied, “I have to wake up the gods.”  At that moment, my thoughts raced back to Psalm 121:4, “He who watches over Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps.” At once my heart rejoiced that I served and worshiped a God who was living, who watched over me day and night, and who had freed me from death and my own idolatry.  At the same time, I couldn’t help but be broken hearted for those who were trapped in a religious system which promises no hope and no freedom, only the chains of dead idols.

Mark 5:1-19 tells the story of an encounter Jesus has with a man who has been possessed by a legion of demons.  This is a man who lived among the tombs, in other-words, he spent his life among the dead.  Those around him tried to bind him, but he broke any chains put on him. Jesus comes onto the scene and casts the demons into a herd of pigs, which proceed to drown in a near-by lake.

While Jesus’ defeat of the demons is important, as it shows his power and authority over Satan and the spirit world, the portion of this passage I want us to focus on is what happens to the possessed man after Jesus frees him.  Mark tells us that the demon possessed man was, “clothed and in his right mind,” Jesus had done what no one else could do.  Others had tried to bind him in chains, but Jesus freed him.

The demon-possessed man had lived among the dead, and his friends offered him no hope.  They could only offer him chains.  It was Jesus who offered him what he really needed, freedom from bondage.  It was an event so miraculous, that those who saw the man “clothed and in his right mind,” became afraid.  Why were they afraid when they should have been rejoicing?  I believe their fear was based on their inability to understand how the living God was at work in their midst.  Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19.  Jesus came onto the scene because he knew that the Father was already at work in this man’s life.  He knew the Father wanted to free this man.

Just like those whom I met at the Hindu Temple, there are people all around us who are walking in bondage, and all the world can offer them is chains.  It is Jesus who offers them freedom, forgiveness, and new life.  God has called us to be aware of where he is at work, and to join him in that work.  This Advent, I pray you will ask yourself one important question, “Where is God at work, and how can I join him?”

God Is Able

Advent 2017

December 11

Mark 4:21-end

 “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground.  He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” Mark 4:26-27

Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons is about the courage, the integrity, and finally, the execution of Sir Thomas More, who was caught in the political machinations of England under Henry VIII. The king wanted an heir to the throne, and in that political climate it was everybody’s problem. Cardinal Wolsey complains:

Wolsey: Then the King needs a son; I repeat, what are you going to do about it?

More: I pray for it daily.

Wolsey: God’s death, he means it…You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To govern the country by prayers?

More: Yes, I should.

Most of us feel differently than Sir Thomas More. We think it’s well and good to pray, but surely we should supplement our prayers by helping God get things done.

The little parable of Mark 4:26-29—one of the shortest of Jesus’ parables—clarifies most incisively who really gets things done in the Kingdom of God. A farmer scatters seed on the ground. He sleeps. He rises. He attends to other matters on the farm. Meanwhile, the ground of itself produces the growth of his crops. He’s not responsible for the abundance. He doesn’t even know how it works. When the harvest is ready the farmer goes to work again.

This parable presents us with a man who has his work to do, and he does it. He also knows that there is work that must be done but not by him. The farmer plants and he harvests, but if he tries to make the seeds grow, he’ll be getting in the way.

God is the one who gets things done in his Kingdom. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do. The farmer, after all, plants the seeds and brings in the harvest. This is hard—back-breaking—work. But the point is that the farmer’s activity has to give way eventually to the work that only God can do: make things grow.

There are a number of things only God can do, a primary one being the changing of hearts. Only God can change your neighbor’s heart. If you try, you’ll only get in the way and probably ruin a relationship. Only God can change your heart. If you try, you’ll only change your behavior at best; at worst, you’ll fall deeper into pride.

But God can do it. That is why we pray—because we know God is able where we are not.

Do you believe this? Do you pray with this kind of confidence? Or do you try to supplement your prayers by helping God do his job?





Seed Time and Harvest

Advent 2017

December 9, 2017

Read Mark 4:1-20

“Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20)

“Seed time and harvest.” Unless you were raised on a farm or earned you living working in the fields, this concept might not mean very much to you due to the richness of this country where you and I live. The shelves in our markets are always filled with goods and produce that we consume whether they are locally in season or not. How would you relate the concept of “seed time and harvest” to the season of Advent?

The “Parable of the Sower”, as found in Mark’s Gospel, clearly shows us that it is the very nature of God’s word to cause to produce in the life of the believer. However, this same parable also illustrates quite clearly the effects of certain outside influences on our lives, “the world, the flesh and the devil”, that strive continually against the work of God and his Holy Spirit in our lives. Can you discern the “Parable of the Sower” in our understanding of Advent? I believe that we can relate quite easily this parable to the season of Advent.

The first Advent, the coming of Christ, is indicative of the appearance of the sower to the fields in which he will sow his seed, the word of God. Both the sower and the seed are from heaven above, coming in power and with life. Speaking God’s word, the prophet Isaiah says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and will not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so it is with my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me void, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10,11).

The Lord Jesus planted the first crop of the Kingdom of God when he called his first disciples who soon picked up where their Master left off by taking the message of the Gospel into the whole world in obedience to the Lord’s final command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19,20). We are still in that time of sowing the message of the Gospel throughout the world.

At the second Advent, the time of our Lord’s return, we will witness that final and great harvesting of all that the Lord has sown since his first appearing. Everything that the Lord has done personally or through his faithful servants comes to this moment. Everything is directed to the development and ripening of God’s seed, his people, who are commanded to reproduce and multiply. The question is asked, “What are you producing?” When the “Lord of the Harvest” returns, “what will he find growing in your fields?

The Church as Family

Advent 2017

December 8, 2017

Mark 3:13-end

“And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:35

It is difficult to emphasize how staggering these words were to Jesus’ hearers.  In the ancient Mediterranean world, family was everything.  Your family was the place where one was supposed to find connection, protection, identity, and answers to the most important questions of life.  You lived to bless and further the life of the family.  Within the family, the most important bond of life was the sibling bond of brothers and sisters. Siblings always had your back.  They would never leave, forsake, or betray you; they would lay their lives down for you.

Joseph Hellerman, a New Testament scholar, notes that the ancient world was in a transition that left people feeling disconnected and disenfranchised, lonely and anxious, desperate for meaning and identity.  The church, he points out, was offering the world the opportunity to be a part of an incredible family, one marked by love and composed of brothers and sisters who belonged to the Lord of the universe.  One of the reasons the church grew in the ancient world was that it offered a real and loving family.  The family of the church was a powerful and attractive thing.

The church is meant to be that kind of family.  We work and live to bless the family and further the family mission.  We find our identity in the family.  We make our decisions in the family and for the sake of the family.  We grow up in the family and take on the family likeness as we are shaped by the fellowship of the family.

Is that how we treat life in the family of the church?  Do we treat the church as a product to be consumed when we are in the mood for it or in need of it?  Or do we see the church as the family of God, the place where we find connection, protection, identity, and the answers to all the most important questions of life?  Do we live to bless and further our own purposes, or the life of the family of the church?

We are meant to live as family, as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means that we are to love, forgive, encourage, protect and build one another.  We are to give of our lives to the family to build it up and further the mission and work of the church.

This is a time of year that is for many, even in the family of the church, a lonely time.  In a season when so many turn their eyes inward toward their families, the lonely yearn to be brought in.  This is a time of year when the family of the church has a wonderful opportunity to show beautiful love by making sure that none of our brothers and sisters feel alone.  As you look around, are there brothers and sisters you can show the love of family?