The head of John the Baptist

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Mark 6:14-29

TS Eliot said “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”  This story plumbs the violent depths of that truth.

John the Baptist was a shining light.  He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  Jesus called him the greatest man born of woman (Matthew 11:11).  As the summation of all the prophets who preceded him, his ministry was a preparation for Christ.  With his whole being he testified “Behold the Lamb of God.

John was the “voice” of Isaiah’s prophecy:

“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”  (Isaiah 40:3-4)

In preparation for the LORD Jesus, John would challenge both power and perversity.  The lofty will be brought low and the crooked will be made straight.  This puts John on a collision course with sinful rulers.

In Mark 6 we witness this collision.

“For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.”  (Mark 6:18)

Herod had taken up illegally with his sister-in-law. Presumably he thought kings could do as they pleased.  John was there to remind him – the lofty will be brought low and the crooked shall be straightened.  For this dose of truth, John was imprisoned.  Mark tells us that it was “for Herodias’ sake” that Herod made the arrest (v17).  Herod himself “feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy.” (v20).  He protected John from his wife, Herodias, for she wanted him dead from the beginning.

Yet Herod’s own response was fascinating.  He watched and learnt from John with great interest.  Verse 20 says he “observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”

Herod actually allows his prisoner to continue preaching.  More than this, he listens.  Even more, he gladly returns again and again.  We know that John preached repentance fiercely.  We know he had been saying both publicly and privately that Herod should give up Herodias.  John touched a red-raw nerve with Herod and yet he was compelled to listen.

John’s preaching put him into a spin.  That’s the sense of Herod “doing may things” in verse 20.  He is turning every which way.  He is folding his hands, his stomach is knotting, he’s shuffling from foot to foot.  It’s excruciating but he knows he is being addressed by Truth with a capital T.  What will he do?

Well, that’s the problem.  He doesn’t do anything.  He listens.  He gladly listens.  But he never responds.  He is paralyzed by indecision.  But Herodias, his wife, is not.  She takes advantage of “a convenient day” (v21) and pounces.

“Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.  And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.”  (Mark 6:21-23)

At this party the wine was flowing, the socialites were chattering away and Herdoias’ teenage daughter was doing the ancient equivalent of a pole dance.  This pleased Herod and the guests, and with a stupid, drunken oath Herod puts everything on the line.  The girl doesn’t know how to answer, but her mother does.  Instantly she tells her daughter what to ask for – The head of John the Baptist:

“And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.”  (Mark 6:25)

Here is the defining moment of Herod’s life.  What will win?  On the one hand there is the truth he has heard from God – truth which he cannot deny.  On the other there is an illicit relationship, drunken revelry, his state of arousal and the fear of losing face.

Well this mighty ruler shows himself to be pathetically ruled by forces beyond him.

“And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.  And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought:  and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.”  (Mark 6:26-28)

John had loved Herod more than anyone else in Herod’s life.  John told him the truth.  Herod liked to listen.  But he did nothing.  Eventually he cut off the head of the man who warned him.

This is our natural response to truth.  We are shocked, we are intrigued, we are thrown into a spin.  But if we remain paralyzed by indecision we will find it psychologically impossible to tolerate both the truth and the falsehood of our lives.  Something will have to give.  Naturally, we all want to silence the truth.  Jesus told people in His day that they were always killing prophets (verses).  They didn’t chop off heads and put them on serving dishes, but they resisted the truth whenever it was offered.  Human beings cannot handle too much reality.

When Herod finally met Jesus, Luke writes:

“Herod was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see Jesus of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him.  Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.”  (Luke 23:8-9)

The Word of God gives Herod the silent treatment.  This is the ultimate judgement of truth-haters.  Flee from the Truth and at some point the Truth will let you go all the way to the outer darkness.

All of which makes us consider very seriously- how are we receiving the word?  Perhaps, re-examine the parable of the four soils:  Are we hardened to the word?  Rootless and shallow?  Choked by worry, wealth and wanting?  Or do we welcome the word?

Pearl of great price

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Matthew 13:44-52

Recently a friend emailed me with a question.  He’s not yet a Christian but he’s been attending Bible studies for a while.  The previous night they had used Christian-sounding language that he didn’t understand.  He wrote:

“They asked me if I had ever ‘given my life to God.’  I was unsure.  What does that mean?  Is it in the Bible?”

I wonder how you would respond?

Every evangelical sinew in my body twinged:  “Of course you need to give your life to God! What is a Christian if not someone who has given their life to God? As it is written in the book of…”  Hmm.  That’s funny.  I’m usually pretty good at citing Bible verses.  I can proof-text in my sleep.  But it took me a long time to come up with any “giving-your-life-to-God” language.

Eventually a couple of verses in Romans sprang to mind (6:13; 12:1).  But both of them assume that becoming a Christian has happened.  Even in these verses, “giving your life to God” is the response to salvation, not the way towards it.

And far, far more, the Scriptures speak of Christ giving His life for me! That’s the great theme of the Bible. Whatever offerings we make to God, the good news is the other way around.  He offered His life for me!

With that in mind, let’s read a couple of parables that Jesus told.  And let’s see how to understand them:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.”   (Matthew 13:44-46)

Here is how I usually hear these stories explained:

The “treasure” / “pearl of great price” is Christ.  There He is – precious but passive.  Inert.  Waiting.

The “man” / “merchant” is us.  We are the spiritual seekers.  Active.  Adventurous. Sacrificial.

And – well done us! – we sell everything to gain the treasure of Jesus.

But I wonder whether such an interpretation misconstrues all the literary clues of the passage.  More worryingly, I fear it misconstrues the very nature of “the kingdom”.

“Treasured possession” is a famous way of describing the people of God (Exodus 19:5).

“The man” who is active throughout the parables of Matthew 13 is not us but Christ.

At the same time we are consistently represented by impersonal and passive objects (i.e. the soils).

If these were two parables about us finding Christ they would be the only parables of their kind.  Elsewhere it is always we who are lost and Christ who seeks and saves.

Given these facts, surely the most natural interpretation is this:  Christ is the Man who gives everything to purchase the world so as to possess His church.  He is the great Seeker and He is the great Treasurer.  He is the great Rejoicer and He is the great Sacrificer of all.

“For the joy that was set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross.”  (Hebrews 12:2)

We are the purchased treasure, not valuable in ourselves but only in our Redeemer’s eyes.  He is the Glorious Giver, we are those bought at a price.  This is what the kingdom of heaven is like!

And yet… what happens when we opt for the first interpretation?

We become the great seekers.  We are the ones who treasure.  We are the great rejoicers and the ones who sacrifice all.  The weight is thrown back onto our shoulders.

What do we say to this?

Well, first, we ought to read the parables in context.  Shouldn’t our first assumption be that the main Actor of the chapter remains the same?

Second, we ought to understand the fundamentals of the gospel.  Isn’t it Christ who seeks and saves what is lost?  (Luke 19:10)  And don’t we love only because He first loved us?  (1 John 4:19)

Third, we ought to think about the nature of kingdom living.  Sustaining joy is a wonderful thing, but it flows from receiving Christ’s electing, sacrificial love.  There is a great danger of over-burdening the Christian when we insist that they play the role of the electing, rejoicing, sacrificing Seeker.  I learn my true place in the kingdom when I realise that I am not Chooser but chosen.  I am not Lover but beloved.  I am not Redeemer but purchased.  I am not Seeker but found. Then my heart is won, then I treasure Christ, then I rejoice, then I consider all things as loss for His sake.  But such a reaction is always just that – a reaction.  Christ is always the self-giving Actor.

So what did I say to my friend?

I told him that every Christian ought to say “I belong to God.”  If my friend couldn’t say that, then he probably wasn’t a Christian.

But here’s how we belong to God.  Not by “giving our lives to Him.”  Instead we look to Jesus on the cross and there we see the most incredible truth:  He has purchased me at an incredible cost.  Keep looking there until you are won by His love.  Whatever response we make at that point is belated.  The ultimate and eternity-defining truth is this:  He gave His life for meOf course I belong to Him.

Fell by the wayside

Matthew 13:1-17

Yesterday we encountered a mystery.  Jesus declares His word publicly – that is, for all.  But also He also proclaims it to a particular audience – not everyone has ears to hear.  You might think that Jesus takes a laissez-faire attitude to this phenomenon.  But no, He pleads “He that hath ears, let him hear.”  Jesus wants all people – anyone with ears! – to receive His word.  Yet He acknowledges that not all will.  How can this be?

Well there is no deficiency in the power or the willingness of Jesus.  The lack comes from us.  In the parable of the four soils Jesus speaks of four reactions to His word – three of them are deficient, to say the least (Mark 4:1-20).

First, there is proclamation that is like seed falling by the way side (Mark 4:4).  It is like a farmer sowing on a path – the seed sits on top of the unyielding ground and the birds come and eat it up.  In the same way Satan snatches the word from hard-hearted listeners.

The gospel does not forever remain as an option for its hearers.  If we don’t receive it, it is snatched away.  The devil is like a bird with seed, pecking at it wherever he can.  Satan does not concentrate on heavy metal concerts and voodoo ceremonies.  He flocks to churches. He flocks to the proclamation of the word.  Ever since he asked “hath God said?” he has been devouring the word through doubt and distortion.  If we are hard to the gospel, Satan takes it away.

Second, there is stony ground.  There is immediate growth but then “affliction or persecution” rise on them like the sun on rootless saplings.  The new enthusiast withers away to nothing.

It’s not a question of if “affliction or persecution” come, only when.  Therefore the need for a “rooted” faith is paramount.  Instant joy is no sign of a true conversion to Christ.  There is an immediate “gladness” that can mask a deficient hearing of the word.

Third, there is thorny ground.  This chokes the life out of any initial growth and renders the hearer fruitless.

What are these thorns which can so strangle a person?  Are they gross immoralities?  No, the thorns are very ordinary.  They are “the cares of this world… the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things” (v19).  In other words wealth, worry and wanting are spiritual killers.  These insidious powers are enough to squeeze the life out of a hearer of the word.

Fourthly though, there is good reception of the word.  This response is like good soil which receives a seed and “brings forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred” (v20).

This is incredible fruitfulness.  A potential yield of 10,000%!  What does a person do to create such incredible abundance of life in themselves?  It’s actually very straightforward.  Jesus simply says they “hear the word, and receive it.”  It’s not as though soil combines the power of the seed with its own life-producing power.  It is simply the environment for the seed to do its thing.  It is a recipient of the power which resides in the seed.

The Christian is supposed to be like that: just making room for the word to do what the word does – create new life!

John 15 verse 7 speaks of abiding in Jesus as His word abides in us.

Colossians 3 verse 16 speaks of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly.

This is how incredible growth will happen in our Christian lives.  The hearer who makes a home for the word of Jesus will find exponential fruitfulness in their walk – thirty, sixty, a hundred fold!

Yet as we anticipate such a harvest we should be aware of how this growth will come about.  It will not look immediately impressive.  Instead it will be 1) weak yet powerful; 2) inward yet outgoing; and 3) gradual yet multiplying.

1) weak but powerful.

The story is told of a medieval Italian so terrified of the judgement that he commanded a giant marble slab to be placed over his grave.  He did not want to rise and meet his Maker, so he thought the marble slab would keep him down.  Yet before the burial was complete and the slab was laid, an acorn fell into the grave. Over the years, a great tree grew and split the slab in two.

Now you might think, what chance does a little acorn have against a giant marble slab?  There’s no contest.  The acorn wins every time.

In just this way the words of Jesus spoken from a pulpit, or over coffee, or in the open air – they seem so weak.  Yet they change eternities!

2) inward yet outgoing.

Jesus does not tell the story of The Brick Supplier who delivers a pile of bricks to four different builders.  That would be a very different parable.  Some builders would try very hard and build very high.  Some wouldn’t.  But if it’s about seed sown in soil – how is the soil going to grow the seed?  How can anyone try to grow?  Well, it’s organic.  It happens by the power of the seed itself.

And that’s the thing about the word.  The word is planted in us.  And unless we’re closed and Satan is snatching it away, the word is at work internally.  It’s internal but it will also be outgoing.  Down the track what has gone into us will grow out of us.  It first has an inward effect but, if it’s allowed to do its work within, it cannot help but transform our outward life.

3) gradual yet multiplying

Imagine the sower goes back to the field the very next day.  What would he find?  No discernible change.  In any of the soils.  But seed takes time.  And so does the word.

If we want a quick fix for our lives we should try some other way of change.  But if we want deep-rooted lasting change, then we must receive the word into our hearts.

Don’t let it fall by the way side.  In time it will produce a bumper crop – thirty, sixty, a hundred times what was sown!

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear

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Matthew 13:1-17

Having ears is one thing.  Having ears to hear is another.

Back in Moses’ day he lamented the spiritual deafness of the people:

“And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, Ye have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land; The great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles: Yet the LORD hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:2-4)

Notice how hard hearts, blind eyes and deaf ears go together.

In the next chapter Moses speaks of the solution.  Somehow they will hear the voice of the LORD (Deuteronomy 30:2).  Then,

“the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart.”  (Deut 30:6)

The heart-melting message will cut to the core of these hard-hearted people.  The light will dawn upon a blind nation.  The word will make itself heard in their deaf ears.

The word must be heard.  The word cannot be heard.  But somehow the word is heard, through no power of the people themselves.

When the LORD Himself stands among His people He repeats this teaching.  Jesus teaches the parable of parables – the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

I call this is the parable of parables because of what Jesus says in verse 13:

“Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?”  (Mark 4:13)

If the disciples don’t understand this parable, they won’t understand any parable.  This is Christ’s word on Christ’s word. And as He explains it Jesus says,

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

Jesus is pleading here.  He begins by saying “Hearken, Behold!”  He repeats the saying “If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” (verse 23). He continues His parable saying “Take heed!” (verse 24).   He wants all people to hear.

Jesus is public here.  He expects all people to hear.  In a sense He’s saying “You have ears don’t you?  Well use them.”

But Jesus is also particular.  There will clearly be some who do not hear. The whole point of the parable is that there are four different reactions to the word of Jesus (we will see these more next time).  But, ultimately, those four reactions boil down to two:  either you hear or you do not.

Hearing is not the same as listening.  It’s not the same as being in the audience.  Receiving Christ’s word goes beyond the mere reception of sound waves, or the understanding of doctrine.

We have to be a new kind of person to hear Christ’s word.  Yet, as we’ll see tomorrow, it is this word itself that has power to effect that change. The word to which we are naturally deaf has a power to un-stop our ears and make us its hearers.  As Jesus commands those with ears to hear, His word is powerful to effect what it says.  Tomorrow we will see how this word makes in us a home for itself.

Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden

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Matthew 11:20-30

Jesus has hit something of a brick wall in His evangelism (Matthew 11:20-24).  He brings the living and life-giving word of God.  He answers every question with the wisdom of heaven.  He performs the mighty works of God.  He is like a little oasis of paradise walking around planet earth.  Everything that He touches turns to Eden.  Everyone brought into His sphere is made whole and given peace.

But so many have looked on with cold, stony hearts.  They have refused to acknowledge the bleeding obvious – that here is God’s Son come into His world to set it straight.  Instead, when the light shines, people prefer the darkness.

Does this discourage Jesus?  No.  In fact He turns this into a prayer of praise!

“At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.  Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.”        (Matthew 11:25-26)

The Lord of heaven and earth takes pleasure in hiding the truth from the wise and prudent.  And He loves to reveal it to “babes”.  Why babes?

Little children must receive everything.  They are completely dependent, coming to their parents with empty hands.  Jesus says, it’s the simple, dependent, child-like trusters who will understand the things of God.  While the “wise and prudent” will have the truth hidden from them.

Where will God hide the truth?  He will hide it on full display to the world.  He will hide everything in Jesus:

“All things are delivered unto me of my Father” (Matthew 11:27)

God the Father commits everything into the hands of His Son.  Even before the world began the Father was pouring His Spirit unto and into His Son.  Jesus is the eternal Heir and Executor of the Father’s will.  He is the hiding place of God.  Therefore, verse 27 continues:

“No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.”

There is a kind of “family secret” between God the Father and God the Son.  If the verse ended with “save the Son” we would have an impenetrable “circle of trust.”

If it weren’t for the Son’s revelation, no-one would know God except God.  The Father, Son and Spirit would be enjoying their own company.  But that life would be closed off to us.  This is a tragedy since, according to John 17:3, knowing the Father and Son is eternal life.

But the good news is that the Son reveals the Father.  There is a Way into the family secret.  There is a Way into the life of God.  And His name is Jesus.

Therefore Jesus calls out to the whole world from verse 28 – Come! Come in! Come one! Come all! Come to me!

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Coming to Jesus means coming into true knowledge, true family, true life, true rest.

A yoke was the piece of wood that went across the shoulders of your oxen as they pulled your plough.  The yoke ensures that oxen keep in step.

Jesus says that you and I have some kind of yoke.  Even before we come to Him, He assumes we already have a yoke.  And it’s heavy.  So we plod through life attached to something.  It could be another person; it could be some vision of the good life – career, family, travel; it could be some religious system.  But we are yoked to something that determines our path, our speed, our direction.  It controls our life.  And it’s a heavy, wearying, burdensome weight.

Whatever that thing is, Jesus says – “Lay it down, and be yoked to Me.  I’m the only one with an easy and light yoke.  Every other yoke fits badly.  But when you’re joined to me it’s not a burden – it’s true rest.  Rest for your very soul.”

Nowhere else in the Bible does Jesus describe His heart.  And how does He describe it here?  Meek and lowly.  There He stands – the Revelation of God; the Way of salvation; this world’s Centre of gravity; the Rest for weary – and He is meek and lowly.  He is both great to still our fears, and gracious to win our hearts.  And His offer stands today.

He says to us today “Lay down your burdensome quests and tiresome yokes.  Come to me.  Receive my rest.  When you are joined to me, you are brought to the Father and drawn into the very life and family of God.”

Good Samaritan

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Luke 10:25-37

It’s one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.  A beautiful stranger helps a man left for dead when his own people disdain and forsake him. Those who ignore his sufferings are Levites and Priests – the holiest of the holy.  The stranger is a Samaritan – from that race of hated half-breeds to the north.  Nonetheless he shows incredible compassion.  And Jesus ends with that famous imperative: “Go and do thou likewise.”

And so it is generally assumed that this is a simple morality tale.  We conclude that Jesus wants us to copy this good ethical practice.  Or He wants to break down racial divides and show that love is the heart of it all. Or… what is the point of this parable?

First notice the question that prompts the story.  The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbour?” (v29).  When Jesus finishes the story He asks the crowd who was neighbour to the one left for dead? (v36).  Therefore the key interpretive question is this:  With whom is Jesus asking us to identify?  The priest?  The Levite?  The Samaritan?

None of the above.  Not first of all.  First and foremost. we are asked to see ourselves as the man left for dead.  And from his perspective we are to assess who is a good neighbour.  This is the first clue – we are meant to put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man.

Why do I say “fallen”?  Well the man’s fallenness is triply-underlined in v30.  He “goes downfrom Jerusalem (which in Biblical imagery is an earthly counterpart to the heavenly Zion).  He is heading towards the outskirts of the land (Jericho) which is due east of this mountain sanctuary (notice the echoes of Eden).  This would involve a physical descent of about a thousand metres in the space of just 23 miles.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the man “falls” among robbers.  He is stripped, plagued (literally that’s the word in v30), abandoned and half-dead.  Here is the man’s predicament.  And Jesus wants us to see it as our predicament.  So what hope do we have?

The priest?  No, no hope there.  The Levite?  No chance.  What about a “certain Samaritan”?  (Notice how the “certain” mirrors the “certain man” of v30)?  This Samaritan is the answer to the fallen man.

And this man is nothing like the religious.  In fact he would equally have been shunned by the priest and Levite!

Yet this Samaritan “had compassion” (v33).  In the New Testament this verb, which could be translated “he was moved in his bowels with pity”, is used only of Jesus. (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mk. 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Lk. 7:13; 10:33; 15:20) In every narrative passage Jesus is the subject of the verb and the three parables in which it is used are the merciful King of Matthew 18 (v27), this story, and the father with the two sons (Luke 15:20).

Well this Good Samaritan comes across the man left for dead and, for emphasis, we are twice told about him “coming” to the man (v33 and 34).  The Outsider identifies with the spurned and wretched.

Now remember whose shoes we are in as Jesus tells this story.  We are meant to imagine ourselves as this brutalised, fallen man.  Now read from v33:

“As he journeyed, [he] came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.”    (Luke 10:33-35)

So, there you are in your half-dead wretchedness.  Religion has been no help to you, but this beautiful stranger does everything.  He comes near, takes pity, heals, carries, cares and pays for it all.  A penny was a day’s wage (Matthew 20:2).  The inn keeper is given two pence.  We therefore assume that when he “comes again” it will be the third day.  Then he will bring to completion the work he has begun.

Are we in the picture?  Have we put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man?  Have we appreciated the love of the good Samaritan?

Well then, now:

“Go and do thou likewise” (v37)

Don’t first conjure up the character of the good Samaritan.  First be the fallen man.  First experience the compassion of this loving Outsider.  Then go and do likewise.

This is not a simple morality tale.  The centre is not our resolve to be good Samaritans.  The Centre is Christ Himself.  If we miss Him in any part of Scripture we turn gospel into law and blessings into curses.

My name is Legion: for we are many

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Mark 5:1-20

Can people really change?

Perhaps we think that, superficially, there can be a make-over.  But what about an abiding shift for good in the core of a person?  Mark chapter 5 gives us such a picture.  In the beginning we meet a man described like this:

“A man with an unclean spirit, Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains:  Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces:  neither could any man tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” (Mark 5:2-5)

We will be tempted to consider this man a different species to the rest of us.  But Mark presents this as an extreme example of the human condition common to us all.  The phrase “no man could bind him” is meant to remind us of the Lord’s saying two chapters earlier:

“No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.”  (Mark 3:27)

The “strong man” is Satan.  His goods are the human race.  And Jesus came to “ransom” us from our bondage (Mark 10:45).  What we see in Mark chapter 5 is a dramatic example of the need we all have for Jesus to rescue us from Satan’s clutches.

We all naturally “fulfil the desires of our flesh.” In this way we are all, by nature, under the power of the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Right where we cannot be bound, there we are most under Satan’s control.  The stronger the wilfulness, the deeper the slavery.

More than this, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death and in this way are making our home among the tombs.  And, under the power of death and the devil we cry and harm ourselves in all kinds of ways.

This man is certainly an extreme.  But he is not an alien.  Our struggles are reflected and magnified in his.  Therefore Christ’s victory over these powers will give us hope.  If Jesus can bring peace and order to his life He can do it to any life.

Mark 5:1-20 presents the whole encounter as a battle scene.  First there was the sea-crossing in which the wind and waves – forces of chaos – rise up to halt their progress.  Then there is a beach landing.  The man who looks like he will oppose them is called “Legion” which is a military term for thousands of soldiers.  It looks as though there will be an almighty battle.  But it’s a woeful mismatch:

“When he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,  And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.” (Mark 5:6-7)

When it comes to it, the powers opposing Jesus do not fight Him but worship Him – that is, prostrate themselves before Him!

Jesus asked him, “What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion:  for we are many.”  (Mark 5:9)

This legion of unclean spirits are no match for the Strongest Man.  Just as He had commanded the wind and waves, now He commands these evil forces.

They beg Jesus to be sent into some nearby pigs – unclean spirits seek unclean animals.  When Jesus grants their request we see the malign power of these devils:

“The unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.”  (v13)

Just minutes ago this sea looked like it would kill Jesus.  Now it’s the watery grave of this army of demons.  The sea is a picture of the abyss – the Abyss where the demons and Satan himself will face their ultimate doom.  Here they run headlong into it.  They are hell-bent.  And their effect on all whom they influence is that same self-destructive death-wish.

But now that Legion is free, what is the result?  The man is now

“sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind”  (Mark 5:15)

There are three Greek words in the original:  seated, clothed, sane.  A wonderful conversion.

And how does Jesus effect it?

He doesn’t boil up a secret potion or wave a magic wand.  He doesn’t circle around him 9 times sprinkling the blood of a hamster.  No holy water, no incantations, no hocus pocus.  He just commands:  “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.”  And they come out.

The Bible never describes lengthy battles with evil spirits.  In the Bible no-one ever goes on search and destroy ghost-busting missions.  As the gospel goes out, people do encounter these extreme manifestations.  And it does seem to happen when frontiers are being crossed.  Here as Jesus crosses over into Gentile territory, there is a turf-war so to speak.  When the gospel comes to a new place there do seem to be these “flare-ups” of evil.  We can see this in the book of Acts and in modern missionary settings.

But in the Bible, the way people deal with these demonic flare ups is not with a series of rituals but simply with words.  Either Jesus calls them out with a sentence or people pray a sentence in the Name of Jesus.  And that’s it.  It’s not about conjuring or cajoling the powers.  It’s simply a demonstration of Jesus’ power.

And the world is terrified.  When the villagers see Legion “in his right mind… they were afraid” (v15).  In a sense this is very understandable.  Jesus has proved Himself the Strongest Man:  mightier than a tornado; taming the wild man; commanding the demons.

And so they beg Jesus to leave.  Here we see that the crowds aren’t very different to the demons!  The madness of those hell-bent spirits finds an echo in the madness of men who pray for Jesus to leave.  They would rather be left to enslaving powers than to invite the presence of the Liberator.  Devils aren’t just a problem for Legion.  There is a crazed obstinacy to “normal” folk.  We would rather do without the power of Jesus.  Instead we are ruled by forces determined to destroy us and we ask Jesus to leave.

Interestingly, Jesus grants their request and starts to go.  At that point Legion makes a request too.  And he would have had high hopes for its success.  After all Jesus granted the request of the demons and He granted the request of the mob.  But when Legion asks to go with Jesus, He replies:

“Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.”  (Mark 5:19)

Jesus commissions the craziest man in the region to be an evangelist. Why?  Because he is to tell of the “compassion” of the Lord.  His story is not the story of a man who pulled it all together and turned things around.  It’s the story of helpless hellishness conquered by omnipotent mercy.  And so Legion goes …

“and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him:  and all men did marvel.”  (Mark 5:20)

First possessed, then placid, then preacher.  No-one is a lost cause for Jesus.

The friend of sinners

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Luke 7:18-35

The world is always judging Jesus.  At His birth much was made of His name (Matthew 1:18-25).  At His death the key issue was His identity (Matthew 26:63-65).  And the central question of the Gospels is “What think ye of Christ?”  (Matthew 22:42).

Sometimes the labels He attracted were true and well-meant, as in “Behold the Lamb of God“.  Sometimes they were false and ill-meant, as in “He hath a devil” (Luke 7:33).  But in this verse we have an accusation that is both true and ill-meant. Here Jesus comments on the verdicts being passed on Him:

“The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)

In the minds of these accusers “friend of sinners” was a shameful epithet. Perhaps they lived by that old maxim:  “you can tell a man by the company he keeps!”  What should they conclude when they see Jesus associating with such “down-and-outs”?

Well they should think:  Jesus is the Doctor for the sick.  They should see the out-going merciful love of Jesus for sinners.  And such love should thrill them.  But instead they see it as a slur.  “Friend of sinners” is their slander.  But Jesus owns the title with pride.

And Luke shows us what it means with the next incident he relates.  Read Luke 7:36-52 to see Christ’s befriending love shown to a sinner.  There a “woman in the city, which was a sinner”, kisses Jesus’ feet, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair.  It’s more than an awkward moment for the respectable Pharisee who has invited Jesus to his house. The Pharisee, called Simon, says to himself “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.”

Jesus responds to the thoughts of Simon:  “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.  And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?”  The answer is inescapable.  Whoever has been forgiven much will love much.

Simon imagined that he had little or no debt to be forgiven.  Therefore Simon did not love Jesus.

The woman knew that she was indebted to the hilt.  But she also knew that Jesus was the Friend of Sinners.  She loved Him very much.  And Jesus says to her:  “Thy sins are forgiven… Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”

How do you respond to the Friend of Sinners?

How we judge the Judge will prove to be our judgement.

Are you scandalized?  Do you watch, bemused, from the sidelines as Jesus mixes with the undesirables?  Or do you flock to Him in your sin no matter what the respectable might think?  What is your assessment of Jesus?  Do you love the Friend of Sinners?  If so, He says to you: “Thy sins are forgiven.  Thy faith has saved thee; go in peace.”

Shout it from the rooftops

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Matthew 10:26-33

I was recently talking about open-air preaching.  Someone responded:

“Do you have to bother people with this stuff? Can’t you just stick inside the churches.”

This man (not a Christian) perfectly expresses the spirit of the age.  We are happy with privatised beliefs.  We are content that folks practice their personal piety behind closed doors.  At the same time we fiercely protect public space as a neutral zone which is supposedly free from all particular truth claims.  We are happy for advertisers to sell us things when we walk out the door.  Commerce is allowed in public and no-one needs to argue for it. But virtually everything else must meekly seek permission.  Preaching the consumerist gospel won’t attract opposition.  But preaching the Christian gospel will.  Very soon we will be told to “stick inside the churches.”

Such a commitment to the privatisation of beliefs is not itself religiously neutral.  It is the enforcement of a very particular secularist agenda.  But Jesus will have nothing to do with it.  He says:

“There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.”  (Matthew 10:26-27)

What could be more private than your house?  And yet Jesus says “Don’t close the door and shut in the truth.  Climb onto your house and publish the truth.  Your roof is not a prison to confine your beliefs.  It is a platform to confess them!  Even your abode is not private – it’s a pulpit. We do not have a privatised faith but a proclaimed faith.”

How could it be any other way?  As they say, Good news is for sharing. And that’s not just something for us to live by.  God’s own Truth is an audience-seeking reality.  From the beginning God has had a Word.  He has always had an outgoing Expression.  And He has not kept His Word to Himself.  He has created a whole cosmos to be a hearer of His Word. “Every creature which is under heaven” has the gospel of His Son preached to them (Colossians 1:23).   From His own “holy habitation” God shouts from the rooftops.  His Word is always audience-seeking. Therefore to have the Word means heralding the Word.  It’s true for God, it must be true for us.

The Truth will out.  In every sense imaginable – the Truth will out.  If we don’t feel something of the outgoing impulse inherent in the gospel, we haven’t yet heard it as we ought.  We have a faith to be shouted from the rooftops.

Let’s leave the final word to George MacLeod.  When he thought about the lengths to which the Word has gone to meet us in our darkness, he couldn’t help but recommend an outgoing, public proclamation of this Word:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and Latin and in Greek; at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.  Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about.  And that is where churchmen ought to be, and what churchmen ought to be about.”

The very hairs of your head are all numbered

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Matthew 10:26-33

“She knows my name,” says Ted, amazed.  “Some of my best friends don’t know my name.” (There’s Something About Mary.)

To be known is an incredible thing.  Many a marriage is destroyed when one of the spouses feels unappreciated.  As they take up with someone else they will often say, “It’s just that so-and-so really understands me!”   We crave face to face in which we know and are known.

Well, ask yourself…

How many people know your nationality?

How many people know your eye colour?

How many people know your birthday?

How many people know your middle name?

How many people know your blood type?

At each stage I’m guessing that the number of people shrinks.  But as the numbers decrease, so the level of intimacy grows.  Perhaps only one or two people know your blood type.  But they’re likely to be very close to you.

What about this question:

How many people know the number of hairs on your head?

Jesus says your Father in heaven does:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31)

It would be easy to write this off as a statement about abstract omniscience.  As though numbering our hairs was some parlour trick God wheels out to impress the dinner guests.  As though the numbering of our hairs merely demonstrates God’s computing powers.  But it’s not a display of mere knowledge – there’s nothing mere about knowing in the Biblical sense.  This is about His intimate knowledge.

Some people know my middle name, very few know my blood type, but the Father alone numbers the hairs on my head.  This is deeply personal knowledge and it shows intense care.  What purpose could there be in knowing my hair-count?  What good is it to know such trivia about me? And yet the Father knows it about me.  He loves me and cares for me down to the smallest detail.  He knows me – better than I know myself.

The context of this verse is Matthew 10 where Jesus sends out His disciples to the mission field.  Though they are sheep among wolves, yet they go with the Father’s wisdom and with the Father’s love.

Do you ever worry that God’s love for you is vague and impersonal? Perhaps you trust He has a plan for the cosmos but is a little hazy on the details of your own situation. Nonsense.  Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear ye not therefore!