Author: clboatr

A Different Kind of King (John 6:1-15)

Oh, it is that time of year again that we all dread and yet can’t seem to divert our eyes from… Election season! Wooohoooo (sense the sarcasm?) It is the time of year for us to put our hopes in our political party, to dream of a brighter future in Washington and Topeka, as new candidates promise to solve all our problems. Thank goodness everything will soon be fixed…

Or maybe it won’t? As a country and, more dangerously, as the church we have become adherents to “state-ism.” We believe that the government, if run properly, by the right people, will solve all our problems. We worship at the throne of politics, loving our party while despising the “other.”

In the church, we see this problem rear its head when both sides argue that Jesus would support them and their party. “Jesus is pro-life” or “Jesus is for social justice.” We tend to want Jesus to lead our political party, to promote our political agenda.

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Jews of Jesus’ day had political ambitions as well. They believed the coming Messiah would throw of the chains of oppression the Romans placed on them. The Messiah would lead the revolution and re-establish the kingdom of Israel. I guess you could say the Messiah would, “Make Israel Great Again.” Into this context, Jesus takes five loaves of bread, two fish, and feeds 5,000 people. (John 6:1-13)

After this incredible sign, the crowd said to one another, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (v. 14) They see that the Messiah has come. He is going to lead them to all their political dreams!

But Jesus, of course, will have none of it. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (v.15) Jesus will not be the king that we expect from him. As he tells Pilate while on trial in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from this world.” Jesus refuses to conform to our political agenda. Jesus is never a means to an end; he is the end. 

Jesus is not a king who builds himself up, he is one who serves (John 13; Mark 10:45). Jesus is not a king who looks to enrich the already rich, but is aligned with the least of these, the poor and outcast (Mark 2:17; Luke 16:19-31). He is a king that doesn’t reside in a palace in comfort, but had no place to lay his head and suffered. (Luke 9:58) He looks nothing like what power looks like in our world, his leadership is not like ours. He is the servant-king, leading with a towel and not the sword.

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We have a king who, “has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” (2 Peter 1:3) We don’t need more than Jesus, and let us not ask for more than him. I’m not going to say which side to vote for this fall, who is best or anything like that. What I would call on Christians to do is put their faith, their trust, in someone better than a political leader.

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Shepherds (Mark 6:30-34)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my friend Travis this week. Re-reading old texts and e-mails, looking at pictures, thinking back on memories together. He has saturated my week, popping up in unexpected places, bringing up all sorts of emotions. So it isn’t much of a surprise that this weeks gospel reading brought Travis to my mind as well. It comes from Mark 6:30-44, but I’m just going to focus on verses 30-34.

 

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

What I immediately notice about Jesus is that, 1) he encourages his leaders to rest and 2) when work comes up, Jesus puts his desires to the side to meet the needs of the crowd. Rest will come soon enough, opportunities for refreshment will arise. However, the needs of others come first. Why? Because Jesus has compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Early on Wednesday morning this week I got the crushing news that my dear friend Travis had passed away. It cut deep. Travis impacted my life and challenged me in so many ways. We worked together in ministry and at Robinson for five years. He wasn’t a co-worker, though, he was one of a few men I’ve considered a brother in my life.

I got the news while working a youth camp in the country, fitting considering that was Travis’ summer life; pouring into the lives of youth and teaching them God’s Word at camps. My best friend asked if I needed to go home.

And I thought about this passage.

And I thought about Jesus.

And I thought about Travis.

I decided to stay. I was surrounded there by my family and my church. But on a different level, I knew what Travis would have me do, and I knew that it was what Christ would have me do. I laid aside my current needs, because around me were kids who God has given me compassion for, because they are sheep without shepherds. Time for grieving would come when I got home, tears would be poured out over hours of reflection and as I type this now. But God calls us to put the needs of others first. Christ did this. All who knew Travis, know he did this as well.

 

Travis was a man who was as comfortable studying and exegeting Old Testament Hebrew as he was herding cattle. The practical hardships of the shepherd and the biblical symbolism of the shepherd were clear to him. Jesus picked up on these two things in John 10: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep… My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Christ begged his Father in the garden the night before his death; “remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36) Not what I want but what you want. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Travis was a man who looked at young men and women and constantly laid down his life for them. Gave up his time, gave up his possessions, gave up his ego. In modern speak, Travis was the good cowboy. He searched out the one lost, often the one others told him was a waste of time. In this way he exemplified Christ.

If we are called to be shepherds, we are also called to remember who is our shepherd. Jesus is the one whose voice calls out to us, and we are to follow that voice as Travis did as best he could. “No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Right now, it feels like death has snatched Travis from us. That death has the final word in Travis’ life. That separation is eternal. My friends, this is not so. I weep for those left behind and because there is so much I long to have done and enjoyed with Travis, but our friend Travis is only asleep. Death can’t snatch him from Jesus’ hand.

When Jesus approached the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus, “a deep anger welled up in him.” (John 11:33 NLT) Jesus sees the effects of death and is angry. It is what he came to reverse. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” writes the apostle Paul. Jesus cried out, “Lazarus, come out!” nearly 2,000 years ago. There will come a day when he calls out the same to me and my friend Travis. We will awaken to a new heaven and a new earth.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed.’” (Rev. 21:1-4)

As I reflect on Travis’ life, this hope that we have that death is not the end sustains me. It doesn’t mean I don’t grieve, but because I know Travis’ faith and his God, I do not despair. I pray that we can be shepherds like Travis, or cowboys to be more accurate, having compassion on those in need of guidance and willing to lay down our own lives in the interest of God’s precious children. I take comfort in knowing that after all his years of putting others first, Travis is now getting his deserved rest in the presence of God.

Becoming “Eagles” (Mark 6:7-13)

I can’t do this.” One of the greatest themes in literature or movies is that of the hero who does not seem to have what it takes.

Frodo Baggins is a non-descript hobbit from the Shire who is tasked with carrying the ring of power to Mount Doom for destruction in The Lord of the Rings. There is nothing in him that would make one think Frodo is destined for greatness, but it is he who saves Middle Earth. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is an ordinary, poor girl from a grungy mining district. Nobody would expect this teenage girl to overthrow the Capitol. Peter Park is a geeky, awkward and gangly boy in puberty, yet he is the Spiderman.

You get the picture? We love the ordinary hero, the one who becomes great despite all appearances to the opposite, because we need the hope that there is greatness in us, despite all evidence to the contrary.

 

As I studied the gospel reading this week (Mark 6: 7-30), I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What is Jesus thinking?” Here, he sends out his disciples to do his ministry. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (6:7)  Why would Jesus trust these guys? They have done nothing so far but interfere (Mark 1:35-38), not understand (4:13), rebuke (4:38) and question Jesus (5:31). And now Jesus wants to use them to spread the good news of his Kingdom? Couldn’t he pick some more competent, faithful workers?

Many of us today think to ourselves, I believe in Jesus, I want to follow Jesus, but doing his work, being a leader in the church…. “I can’t do this.” Jesus saw his disciples in a different way than we see them, maybe even differently than they saw themselves. See, the authority to lead in the church obviously is not grounded on who is the most talented. It is primarily based on the call of God.

Today, we need to see that it is God who will equip us to do the task that he has called us to do. “Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.” (2 Cor. 3:6) It takes trust that if he has placed in your heart a “kingdom” work, he will also provide the necessary gifts and abilities to do said task. Jesus wants us to trust him. Look in verse 8, “He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” Jesus wanted his disciples to trust that his mission and word was enough. They needed nothing more.

[I’ll insert here that this is not a seal of approval to do things without preparation. The early church devised plans, followed through on plans and worked with others to complete work. This is not a call to dive in blindly, headfirst and not think of the consequences. God calls us to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33) , but he still demands that we follow his call.]

Many of us in the Church are paralyzed by fear that we can’t be who God calls us to be. We feel we can’t forgive the way we should, we can’t love like we ought, we can’t trust in his provision enough to tithe. To use an example of Dr. Don Davis of TUMI, many in the Church today are eagles who think that they are chickens. We hear sermons about “soaring like eagles,” but go home and “cluck like chickens.” Brothers and sisters, this is should not be so. If you believe in Christ, you have been given spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7) and Jesus Christ and Church are begging you to use them! You are an eagle. Don’t let other people or the world or Satan tell you you are a chicken. You were made to fly, not scratch in the dirt.

Jesus looked at his disciples and saw future eagles. He didn’t let the fact that they were living like chickens keep him from sending them out to do his work. If we wait until we are perfect to act, we never will act. God desires to see his work done through the ordinary, seemingly regular folk of this world. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

 

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There is one thing that I must point out, though. Mark writes about the disciples being sent out in verses 7-13, and then about their return to Jesus in verse 30. In between, (v.14-29) Mark tells the story of John the Baptist being executed at the hands of Herod. Remember, in Mark’s gospel, the story in the middle of another story is key to understanding both stories. (Think Mark 5:21-43 with Jairus and the suffering women) Here, Mark is pointing out the cost of discipleship.

By inserting the death of John the Baptist between the story of the disciples being sent, he is reminding his readers of what happens to those who follow and serve Jesus. Death. We should be thankful that living in the United States the Christian does not face physical death the way the early church did for its faith or other Christians do around the world today.

But our serving Christ still involves death. Death of our ego. Death of self. Death of my wants and desires. They are all laid at the feet of Jesus. In this life, we are promised nothing but a cross; the crown comes later.

The amazing thing, however, is that in losing our life for Christ, we find the only one worth having. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35) We think if we give up our lives, we will be oppressed slaves. In actuality, we are getting rid of our chicken lives in exchange for that of an eagle.

Following Christ requires no special talents, no incredible abilities. Just a simple, childlike faith which receives the grace of God through what Jesus Christ already did for us. It requires us letting go of our own wants, dying to self, and unlearning our “chicken” behaviors. God created you to work with him to proclaim and spread the kingdom of God. If he sent the disciples, who were completely undeserving, will he not send you? Let us stop living and seeing ourselves as chickens, and begin to see ourselves the way Jesus sees us; eagles who he trusts can and will bring his kingdom to a suffering and broken world. (Or as Paul might say, put off the old self and put on the new; Col. 3:5-17)

 

On the Necessity of Faith (Mark 6:1-6a)

If this week’s assigned gospel reading (Mark 6:1-6) isn’t the scariest in Mark’s gospel, I’m not sure what is. If ever there was a text that we can be sure is an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus, it is this one. Why would the author include a story about Jesus in which the Messiah was unable to perform a miracle? We must conclude that the story is grounded in history and that we are to learn something valuable from it. Here is the narrative:

 

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

 

I believe that this text demands of us a conclusion that sounds heretical on the surface.  Our faith is critical in order for Jesus to do his work. This should leave us standing in deep humiliation and awe and fear. The healing of the world, the subduing of evil and the power to change lives, is somehow mysteriously tied to our faith. It seems as though God has created in his Kingdom a system in which He does not desire to act alone. The Church is to act with faith alongside Him. 

At this point, I feel like the father in Mark 9:24 who cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Let me point myself and others toward two practices which I believe revive the spirit of doubt in us and push us towards faith such as that which we read about last week with the suffering woman (Mark 5: 25-34).

  1. Obedience. When we doubt, we must obey. Common thought is that the more faith I have, the better I will obey. I have found, and I believe scripture teaches, that obedience is what often leads to deeper faith. Peter begins to follow Jesus in chapter 1 of Mark, but only professes him as Messiah in chapter 8. In Luke, Peter says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5) Our faith is a gift, but it sinks in deeper through obedience. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

“Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes… [If] You are disobedient, you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are willfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to his call.”

The step of obedience is often terrifying. It was for Peter when called to get out of his boat and walk. It was for the rich young ruler who was called to give away his possessions. It was for the scribe who was called to love his neighbor. It is when we are called to take in the orphan, to fight for the oppressed, to speak up for the truth of the gospel. But in every step of obedience, I have found a deeper sweetness in Christ. For in obedience we find deeper trust in He who equips us for the task.

          2) Praise. Let me be upfront that this is coming from a guy who has a near disdain for modern, loud worship bands. That issue is not the discussion, though. Scripture is clear that praise is vital to faith. Praise, at its core, affirms and reminds us of who God is. It decentralizes self and helps us to focus on God. I have found it good practice to begin my prayers by saying, “God you are ________,” and spending a few minutes praising Him. By the time I come to petition and intercession, my anxieties are usually gone because I have stopped thinking about myself and begun to think aright by centering on Him.

Hebrews 13:15 says, “By him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips.” In the Old Testament, an animal was killed as sacrifice, but here, our ego is slain. Paul Billheimer writes, “The only time one can truly offer this ‘sacrifice’ is when things seem to be going wrong, for it is only then that one is called upon to die to his or her own opinions, choices, and judgement.” Through praise, we learn to trust our own power less, and Christ’s more.

 

This passage is clear that God is waiting on us to have faith. He is amazed at our lack of it. He wants to work alongside a faithful Church, not do it all on his own, as it were. Remember, Christ has already done his part. He became human, lived among us, died for our sin, rose from the dead as a sign that death has been defeated and Satan overthrown, and ascended to reign over the Church and creation. He will come back to restore all things in heaven and earth. “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth.” (Luke 18:8) Will we do our part? Will we be found obeying, praying, praising and doing His work?

I pray this passage is not scary. I pray that it is an empowering. We have the task of working with Christ and the power to do it if we will trust him. I find the prayer of Teresa of Avila fitting for this text:

Christ has no body now in earth but yours, no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ is looking out on a hurting world.

Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

Yours are the hands with which her is to bless now.

Now let us work with Christ to build his Kingdom in our watching and waiting neighborhoods.

Your Faith has Made you Well (Mark 5:21-43)

What is faith? We hear a lot of people talk about faith, encourage us to have faith, speak of its importance. Seemingly, the answer varies on who you ask. Is it what you say you believe? Is is thinking that there is a God who will take care of your circumstance? Is it unrealistic hope that makes us feel better about our inevitable death? The gospel writer Mark would have a very definite answer to this, I think. In his gospel, true faith is exhibited by people who act and obey based on what they believe about Jesus Christ.

The gospel text for this week comes from Mark 5:21-43. In these verses, Mark sandwiches two stories together in order to demonstrate what faith looks like. Story 1, part 1, involves a religious “insider,” a leader of the synagogue named Jairus. He comes to Jesus desperate, begging at Christ’s feet that Jesus would come to his home and heal his sick 12 year old daughter.

Then comes story 2. On their way to Jairus’s a woman who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years, and “had endured much under many physicians, and had spend all that she had; and she was no better but rather worse,” came up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, believing she would be healed. And she was! Jesus then immediately wants to know who touched him. Embarrassed and scared, the woman, a religious outsider because of her condition and Jewish law, admits it was her. Jesus commends her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” (Mark 5:34)

Back to story 1, part 2. After this, Jairus is informed that his daughter has died. Yet, Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus enters the home where professional wailers are already making a loud scene, but Jesus sends them away and enters the child’s room. “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha koum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was about twelve years of age).

Mark sandwiches his material on purpose, as the middle story of the women is the key to understanding the story of Jairus and his daughter. It is about faith and what faith looks like. Jairus, the religious insider, must have the same kind of faith as the hemorrhaging woman. This poor women, who had suffered for so long, looked everywhere to be cured of her suffering which was both physical and social. Commentator James Edwards points out, “According to Torah, a women was unclean for seven days after her monthly period, but if she had a protracted gynecological problem, as does this women, she remained ‘unclean’ throughout its duration.” Imagine, not only physically suffering but being socially outcast as she wasn’t allowed contact with anyone in the community!

So here, at the end of her rope, she turns to Jesus. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” she thinks to herself. And how cool is Jesus. Not only does he heal her, but he commends her! Other Jewish rabbi’s would have probably been angry that an “unclean” women would dare touch them. But Jesus is always breaking down the barriers man sets up. He wants her to know that it wasn’t just him, but also her faith that made her well (which we will see next week is key to healings).

So here in this passage we learn from the outsider, the outcast, how to follow Jesus. It isn’t enough to be around him, to just hear about him or learn about him. We have to act boldly in our belief that he can supply all the healing our souls need. (It doesn’t mean we will always be healed physically; see 2 Corinthians where Paul asks for his pain to be lifted, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you.”)

Mark continuously uses the outcasts of Jewish culture to demonstrate what faith in Jesus looks like; a leper (1:40-45), a paralytic (2:1-12), a demon possessed man (5:1-20), a women suffering from bleeding (5:24-34), a Greek women (7:24-30) a father whose son suffers from seizures (9:14-29) and a blind man named Bartimaeus (10:46-52) all illustrate those living under the shadow of Satan and death, and being freed and healed by their faith in Jesus. Where “religion” was helpless, faith, which acted, was powerful.

Jesus reverses everything, it seems. He reverses who is in the kingdom; the humble and desperate outcasts are in, the religious elites are out. This is good news for the city, for the poor, for those who don’t think they could ever be acceptable to God (Conversely, it’s bad news for all those who think they are on the up and up).

But what is most important to see in this “Mark Sandwich Story,” is that Jesus reverses even death. Death, by all human understanding, has the final word. However, Jesus demonstrates that all is not as it appears. The reality is, Jesus has the final word, and by his life, his death, his resurrection and his ascension, death no longer holds its power over those who have faith in him.

Faith that trusts him enough to do what he commands.

Faith that does crazy and wild acts for him.

Faith that listens to the voice of His Spirit.

Faith that brings his kingdom to broken communities.

Faith that reaches out and grabs for him because we know nothing else can save us.

Faith that heals us.

Faith that delivers us from the greatest enemy, death.

May we all have this kind of faith.

 

God in the Storm (Mark 4:35-41)

It is really easy to look around at the world and wonder where God is. Watch the news and see children torn from their families, young people shot over petty drug deals. Look at social media and see constant arguing and finger pointing, cries for attention and broken hearts. Where is this powerful Jesus we hear about? Everywhere it seems that sin, death and Satan are wreaking havoc, in control and have the final word. Is God asleep at the wheel? Or worse, does he just not care?

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ disciples ask these same exact questions.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on a cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased and there was a dead calm. He said to them “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

One of the first things my always skeptical mind asks is, “Did this really happen?” Incredibly, this narrative has all the hallmarks of an eyewitness testimony (which, if we listen to the early church, was the witness of Peter.) There are many unnecessary details in the story. There were “other boats with them”, Jesus slept “on a cushion,” are examples of this, details that don’t move the plot forward. While modern literature using unnecessary details in stories, ancients myths did not. So, either Mark was nearly 2,000 years ahead of his time, or this story came from someone who was actually there.

So when the disciples saw Jesus asleep in the middle of a terrible storm, their boat filling with water, minutes away from death, they yelled at him. “Do you not care that we are perishing!?” How often we cry out the same to God. When we experience death, when injustice reigns, when relationships are broken, we feel in our souls that God does not love us, he has abandoned us, and worse, just does not care.

Jesus response is puzzling, though. “Have you still no faith?” On the surface, this seems harsh. Of course they were panicked, they were about to die and Jesus was literally asleep! If God loves us, he would never make us go through suffering and crises, right? Are Jesus’ expectations here too high?

I’m not sure I have perfect, or even good words of comfort here. I believe we too often try to solve the situation of those suffering instead of listening to them and suffering alongside them. “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26. However, as Christians, we have to see that our situation is not an indicator of God’s love for us. It is impossible to question God’s love for us, because of what happened on the cross. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)

In our greatest storm, that of our own sin and raggedness, Jesus did not abandon us or stay asleep, but came and rescued us. Not only did he die, but he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven and has poured out the Holy Spirit to all who believe. Our faith can’t be based on our feelings in a season, but rather on the facts of the life of Jesus Christ.

So, when we are going through the storms of life, often it may feel as though Jesus is asleep and does not care. It is a painful, awful place to be as any who have felt it can attest to. But, because of what Jesus did for us, who he is, we can be assured that he is not asleep or unsympathetic. If he did not abandon us in our greatest storm, surely he will not abandon you in your other storms. And when we realize this, I believe that he has the power to give us peace and calm in the same way he did to the waters and wind those 2,000 years ago.

 

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the might waters;

They saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.

For he commanded and raised the stormy win, which lifted up the waves of the sea.

They mounted up to heaven, the went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their calamity,

They reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits end.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;

He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired have.

Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.

(Psalm 107: 23-31)

The Mustard Kingdom (Mark 4:30-32)

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What should we compare God’s kingdom to? A powerful, unstoppable empire sounds like it might fit. The ancient Jews would have liked that analogy and so would many of us in the church today. In the Old Testament, the writers described a time when a Messiah would come, rise up and lead Israel in overthrowing the empires of the world and usher in God’s kingdom by destroying her enemies, similar to what many Christians think Revelation says about the future.

But then Jesus messes things up again. Jesus didn’t see God’s kingdom this way. Instead, he says God’s kingdom, “is like a grain of a mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out larger branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:31-32)  A tiny, seemingly insignificant mustard seed, is the best comparison for God’s kingdom.

Here, you would probably imagine that I will tell you how God takes little seeds (acts and deeds) and turns them into giant trees. And that is true. But it would be missing a lot of key Jewish understandings of the mustard seed that Jesus’ and Mark’s audience would have known. Let me point out three important themes to understanding how God’s kingdom, and the church should be like a mustard seed. (I am indebted to Shane Claiborne’s and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President for what follows.)

 

First, Ancient Jews hated mustard seed. In fact, around the year 200 rabbinic law outlawed Jews from growing mustard in their gardens. Why? Because mustard is a weed that is nearly impossible to get rid of. You can tear it out, but it will pop up in another spot. It is a nuisance and if left to its own design, will take over the entire garden.

Which is Jesus’ point. His kingdom starts small but is uncontrollable. “What Jesus has in mind is not a frontal attack on the empires of this world,” writes Claiborne. “His revolution is a subtle contagion- one little life, one little hospitality house at a time.” The Roman Empire couldn’t stomp it out for this specific reason; every time they arrested or killed one church off, more sprang up! Like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God is wild, unpredictable, makes a mess of “orderly” life, and is impossible to stop.

 

Second, mustard was used in the ancient world as a kind of healing balm. Pliny the Elder wrote around the time of Jesus that, “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health.” It was rubbed on the chest in order to help with respiratory illnesses, sort of like a primitive Vicks vapor rub.  Mustard not only sprung up all over the place, or was impossible to contain and get rid of, but it also is used to heal. What a perfect metaphor for what the Church and God’s kingdom should look like!

 

Third, mustard is powerful. I remember the first time I ate mustard greens a few years ago, thinking they were regular lettuce leaves. That was an unpleasant surprise. Mustard is not only small, but incredibly potent, with a powerful and fiery strength to it.

But here is the key. Mustard’s power is only released when it is crushed. And that is exactly how God’s kingdom works. As the apostle Paul would later write, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) This is a radical command for today’s world. Be crushed, be weak, let others trample on you. God’s kingdom is one of love, returning hate with kindness, forgiving and reconciling with those who hurt us. It is an upside-down kingdom, where the weak are powerful and the humble are exalted. C.S. Lewis writes:

 

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Unfortunately, too often I don’t love this way, and I believe most of the church would rather surround ourselves with hobbies and luxury rather than risk loving others this way.

But look at Jesus, our Savior and Victor. He spun power on its head. His power was not in crushing others, but in being crushed. He does not triumph over the powers of darkness with a sword, but with a cross. As John wrote, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

 

Friends, let us not be like the world’s kingdoms. Let us not fight to be the strongest. Let us not seek to tear down but to heal. Let us not be a church of entertainment and flash, but of humility and weakness. This is how the world works, but not those in God’s kingdom. Instead, let us be wild in our love for others, let us be open to being crushed as we invite all to come nest in the shade of God’s kingdom. Let us not see God’s kingdom as a kingdom like anything in this world. Let us be a church that looks like the mustard seed.