Mark 8:14-21 – Adventures in Missing the Point

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat.“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (New International Version)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses yeast as a metaphor for corrupting influences. It only takes a little bit of yeast to work through the whole batch of dough. Christ, upholding the teachings of Old Testament law, didn’t just want people to avoid eating actual unleavened bread. He desired his disciples to be unleavened themselves, a holy people, free of all crookedness and malevolent motives.

Christ’s disciples, bless their pea-pickin’ literal interpreting hearts, were too dense to pick up on the metaphor. They began anxiously chattering about how Jesus might be disappointed with them in having no actual bread to eat. Although they had just witnessed an amazing miracle of literally feeding thousands of people, the disciples did not discern what that miracle meant beyond just filling bodily stomachs.

Had Christ’s disciples been able to see beyond the literal to the metaphorical, they would have likely understood several lessons Rabbi Jesus was teaching them:

  • The provision of bread pointed to who Jesus truly is: Living Bread from heaven. Just like the miraculous provision of manna in the desert to the ancient Israelites, so God was graciously meeting the total needs of people through Jesus. Conversely, the yeast of corruption saps the life out of people.
  • The presence of bread doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all good. There’s leavened bread and unleavened bread. That is, there is the healthy bread of God’s Word to eat, and there are other words to eat which is unhealthy bread. A life set apart for goodness and mercy in the world brings life to others. A person with mixed motives and personal agendas of power and privilege brings no nourishment to others – only inedible bread.
  • The puny amount of bread became a huge feast. A little bit of Jesus is enough to feed thousands and satisfy empty stomachs. A little bit of false teaching and hypocrisy is enough to corrupt thousands of people and make them sick.
  • The prosperity of bread multiplied by Jesus was so much that there were leftovers. In the kingdom of God, there is abundance. The disciples served the bread to the throng of people, and they received bread for themselves with twelve basketfuls of bread pieces – enough bread to feed their families, as well. The leavened bread of corruption doesn’t satisfy; it only decreases health.

But the disciples didn’t get it. So, Jesus chided them for their profound lack of spiritual awareness. By this time, the disciples had been following Jesus for a while – watching him do miraculous works of healing and meeting people’s needs, as well as being on the inside track of receiving his gracious teaching. If anyone ought to get what’s going on, it was them.

If we continually possess only a one-dimensional interpretation of Holy Scripture, a literal one, we are most certainly going to miss most of what’s really happening with Jesus. Rigid and narrow hermeneutical approaches aren’t just inadequate; they’re a corrupting influence. It is an adventure in missing the point because there is only a dim awareness of self, others, God, and God’s Word. It doesn’t nourish anybody. In fact, it makes people sick.

That sad situation makes such people, along with disciples at the time, no better than those on the outside of God’s kingdom.

“You will listen and listen,
    but never understand.
You will look and look,
    but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9, CEV)

Spiritual blindness and deafness are the symptoms of an unexamined and unaware life. And the lack of awareness is a malady from the bread of corruption.

Jesus Christ has a mission, along with the authority to make it happen. He was hoping for a more adequate understanding of this from his disciples, instead of getting the obtuse deer-in-the-headlights response.

Although, in some ways, today’s Gospel story is downer, it is also hopeful. The disciples ultimately do not remain stuck. They illustrate for us the nature of faith. Faith is not a one and done event of praying a sinner’s prayer or accepting Jesus. Rather, faith is an unfolding drama of redemption.

We grow in and into faith. Faith is much more a gradual awareness of God’s character and working in the world, with maybe a few dramatic epiphanies along the way. It is piecemeal, rather than wholesale. It’s more like taking small bites of delicious bread and savoring it with friends, instead of ravenously devouring an entire loaf alone.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51, NKJV)

Lord Jesus, as you came to serve us living bread, fill us with the compassion and insight to respond to human need by loving service. Let the fire of your goodness and justice burn into us and through us, that we may seek to transform the unjust structures of society. As you come into our lives to redeem all that is good, guide to renew and sustain the life of your creation. Let your glory fill our lives. Let your glory fill this world. Amen.

Romans 15:1-6 – The Responsibility of the Powerful

We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. (Common English Bible)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stan Lee

Within the ancient church in Rome there existed people of Jewish descent as well as non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to embrace Christ. These two groups had vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Now they found themselves within one church, with only their shared commitment to Jesus.

Getting along was downright hard. It took a great deal of work for them to understand one another. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he consistently went back and forth, addressing both groups.

Frankly, Paul was most difficult on his fellow Jews. He took them to task. In his view, the Jewish believers had a responsibility to set a tone of Christian equality and fairness. Since the Jewish people have such a rich spiritual history as God’s people, it was Paul’s admonition they use their power on behalf of the non-Jewish Gentiles.

There were some Jewish believers who believed it best that the non-Jewish believers become religiously Jewish. They thought that Gentiles, with no background whatsoever in Old Testament belief and practice, would need to be like them in order to become good Christians.

Paul passionately believed otherwise. The Jewish position of privilege was to be used to encourage and help, not criticize and make things more difficult for non-Jewish persons. Jesus, a Jew himself, did this during his life and ministry on earth.

It came down to a belief of whether Jews ought to hold positions of power within the church, or that power should be shared. As it still is today, it was then with the Jewish people: They have carried an inordinate burden of the world’s sin upon their shoulders. Paul wanted them to continue this special calling – not taking advantage of an opportunity to be on top – but embracing their call for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Whether Jew or Gentile, all together were to make every effort to do what leads to peace and the encouragement of one another. Those with power were to make room at the table (and Table!) for those without power.

The ideal which Paul so adamantly struggled for was unity – to have both Jew and Gentile together as sisters and brothers in the faith. There was never to be two churches – one Jewish and one Gentile. Christ’s death had abolished all barriers to unity. Now, everyone must come together and re-orient their lives around the good news of new life in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Since Jesus closely identified with others, now we, his followers, are to demonstrate a genuine spirit of care and welfare for all people. This is a new family relationship which did not exist before Christ. God, however, has adopted all kinds of non-Jewish people into the family. So, we have responsibilities to get along with each other.

It must always begin with those who possess the power and privilege. They have the first responsibility to initiate an egalitarian society. The onus is on the powerful to ensure that a fully inclusive Christian ethic is established and maintained. We are to welcome others just as Christ welcomed us.

The Christian ethic of welcoming, encouraging, and including is helped by being mindful of the following:

  • Listen more. Talk less. A particular temptation for those with power is to make decisions without consulting or collaborating. Basic human respect comes from listening – neither interrupting nor overtalking. The less powerful folks need to be heard. Give them a seat at the table and honor them with your ears.

People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. (Proverbs 10:17, GNT)

  • Be curious. Respect another’s contribution. Be welcoming and open, whether or not you agree. Seek understanding rather than always trying to be understood. “Tell me more.” “Help me understand.” And “I’d like some clarification…” are all simple phrases of healthy curiosity which invites others to talk.

The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was really true. (Acts 17:11, ERV)

  • Don’t assume. Not everyone has had the same experiences. We don’t all know the same things. Take the posture of a learner. Be something of an anthropologist, seeking to discover rather than superimpose what you already believe on a different group of people.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. (1 Corinthians 3:18, CEV)

  • Be aware of your own biases. We all have them. It takes some work to uncover our prejudices as well as our privileges.

I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the highest angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (1 Timothy 5:21, NLT)

  • Embrace empathy. We all know how it feels to be excluded, left out, and even shamed about something. Let’s use our own experiences to realize what others might be going through. Looking down on another, or dismissing them in some way, is not the way of our Lord.

Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. (Romans 12:15-16, MSG)

  • Focus on connection, not fear. In many groups and in many places, the “other,” the one who is different, is looked upon with suspicion as someone who might upset existing societal norms or steal something we have. Seeking to establish connection with others mitigates fear and anxious feelings.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV)

  • Be patient with others. People need our gentleness and our humble help, not our judgment and exasperation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. (Ephesians 4:2, GW)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

That about sums up exactly what Paul intended to say. Now go and do likewise.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, and completely, we accept you. Fill us then with love and let us be bound together with love as we live our lives, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. You are Love. Amen.

Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)

A Big Glorious Vision of Worship

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:1-8, NIV)

Uzziah was a king of Judah who reigned for fifty-two years. For most of his rule, he followed God faithfully. Under Uzziah the Jews had enjoyed the best political stability, economic security, and consistent worship of God since the days of King Solomon, hundreds of years before. 

Yet, if one were to look below the surface of Judah, it was also a time of spiritual complacency, apathy in worship, taking prosperity for granted, and self-centered – often oppressing others. The nation needed a fresh experience of God, and it came through the prophet Isaiah.

The essence of worship is a recognition and celebration of the triune God. Worship is a relational rhythm between God and humanity in which God self-reveals and people respond.

Worship is an experience of seeing and hearing divine revelation; repenting from wayward actions; and renewing missional service.

Worshiping the triune God ideally happens every day. It’s a lifestyle – not the result of one cleverly planned hour on Sunday. The people of Isaiah’s day were going through the ritual motions of worship without having their hearts in it. Worship was a kind of rabbit’s foot for them in which, if they had regular attendance within the temple, they believed they could do whatever they wanted with their lives outside the temple. 

As a result, the people did not see or hear God in their worship. Authentic worship of God does not have to do with the environment, the fellowship, or the music. True worship of the triune God is a heart desire to see and hear God. 

If worship does not happen in the sanctuary, that is because worship fails to occur daily life. Real worship is a life-changing encounter with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It experiences God’s revelation and changes our view of him. Bona fide worship leads to repentance and changes our view of self. True worship brings spiritual renewal and changes our view of mission and service.

Revelation: Worship Changes Our View of God

Isaiah saw a vision of God in the majestic divine throne room. It was a grand and transcendent vision of a God who dominates the entire setting. The train of God’s robe filled the temple. This is Isaiah’s way of saying the vision was incredibly large. If the train of his robe fills up the temple, then God is an immense Being. Gaining a vision of God’s hugeness is what causes our human problems to be seen as small. 

One time the Assyrian King Sennacherib invaded the land and approached Jerusalem during the reign of Uzziah’s great grandson, Hezekiah. The Assyrians were the dreaded horde of the ancient world, and it seemed no one could withstand them. So, the people prayed:

King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to heaven about this. And the Lord sent an angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the commanders and officers in the camp of the Assyrian king… So, the Lord saved Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all others. God took care of them on every side. (2 Chronicles 32:20-22, NIV)

Isaiah’s vision included seraphs – angels with the job description to glorify God with ceaseless praise. Their physical description symbolizes their function: covering their face symbolizes humility in God’s presence; covering their feet identifies it as holy ground; and flying symbolizes their work to do God’s will.

The seraphs have two-thirds wing power for worship, and one-third wing power for work. If this is any indication how God’s creatures are to conduct their lives, we as humans have a great deal of adjusting to do to accommodate the worship of God.

The sound of worship that came from the seraphs was proclaiming God’s holiness. Isaiah’s view of God changed as a result. As he saw God’s glory, Isaiah saw God as much bigger than he had before. For example, European visitors who come to the United States sometimes have no frame of reference as to how spacious the geography of our country is.

Some have a notion they can make day trips to places like San Francisco, Houston, or New York City because where they live is much more geographically compact. But once they get here, they experience the land in all its glory, and they gain an appreciation for the bigness of America. We all need to experience God’s glory and see God’s holiness because it will cause us to repent of old ways of seeing.

Repentance: Worship Changes Our View of Self

Isaiah was reduced to nothing after seeing a vision of the holy God. Humans cannot see God’s glory without also seeing their sinful selves. Isaiah’s response to God was not praise, but confession. Show me a proud, self-centered, and arrogant person and I will show you a person who has not seen God. Isaiah was unable to cleanse his own sin. Isaiah needed God to purge and purify his uncleanness. The New Testament says:

If we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:7, 9, CEB)

Seeing God completely unravels us, for we see our depravity for what it truly is:

  • When the Apostle Peter saw the Lord’s immensity and power through a miraculous catch of fish he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) 
  • When the Apostle John had a vision of Christ’s glory, and heard his voice, he fell at the Lord’s feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:12-17)
  • When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God and saw the appearance of God’s glory, he fell facedown. (Ezekiel 1:25-28)
  • Even Daniel, perhaps the most righteous prophet of all time, when seeing a vision of God’s glory, fell prostrate with his face to the ground, totally overwhelmed with God’s holiness and his own human sinfulness. (Daniel 8:15-18)

There is wickedness and indifference in the world. People do not see God’s glory and holiness. Because, if they did, they would be totally undone and see the foulness and degradation of hate and injustice. They would turn from apathetic and complacent ways of living. The world and the church need a vision of a holy God that comes from meeting with God. Isaiah saw the Lord. And because he repented, he was then able to hear the voice of God.

Renewal: Worship Changes Our View of Service

God is calling us. God’s voice has gone out. If we do not hear it, it’s because we have not experienced God’s self-revealing and have not responded with repentance. Apart from worship, we are unable to hear God. While Isaiah was worshiping God, he saw, responded, and heard the Lord. The early church heard the voice of God to service and mission:

The church at Antioch had several prophets and teachers…. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul to do the work for which I have chosen them.” Everyone prayed and fasted for a while longer. Next, they placed their hands on Barnabas and Saul to show that they had been appointed to do this work. Then everyone sent them on their way. (Acts 13:1-3, CEV)

Isaiah was willing. He didn’t ask any clarifying questions. He neither inquired what the mission would be nor questioned God as to the plan. Isaiah plainly said, “Here I am, send me.”  It was an unconditional response to hearing God. Isaiah made no deals with God, did not try and negotiate terms of service. Isaiah simply told God he was willing to be sent. 

Many people fill their lives with stuff and activity. And they are unable to hear the voice of God. There’s just too much noise drowning out God. We have uncritically, without any discernment through prayer and worship, filled our lives to overflowing with never-ending things to do. And we have even sanctified it and called it holy, as if God’s will for us is to be constantly on the go.

Someday, we must give an account of our lives. God will ask why we did not take a risk, get involved, and go out into the world with a deep sense of mission. Too many people will say, “I never heard the call!” Yet, God was calling. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” says the triune God.

Conclusion

God’s glory was revealed to Isaiah. Isaiah responded to that vision with confession and repentance. This brought a renewed sense of mission to his life. Isaiah was then able to hear God’s voice calling him to service. It is not our ability God cares about. Because God can equip anybody for any type of work. Instead, it is our availability God cares about.

We need to put ourselves in a position to see and hear God. The obstacles to visioning God’s glory and hearing God’s voice are legion: inattention to God’s Word and God’s creation; no mindfulness to the Holy Spirit; intense, constant, and prolonged preoccupations; lack of availability to the ways of Jesus; little sleep; unhealthy habits; a dull spiritual sense; lack of personal and divine awareness; a paucity of spiritual practices and disciplines; and a failure to be able to experience a vision of God.

God has graciously revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is not so much a doctrine to believe as it is a powerful reality to live into. If we see and hear God today it will cause us to repent and be renewed in mission and service.

*Above painting of the prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall, 1968