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.

Psalm 53 – Is God Gone?

Bilious and bloated, they gas,
   “God is gone.”
It’s poison gas—
    they foul themselves, they poison
Rivers and skies;
    thistles are their cash crop.
God sticks his head out of heaven.
    He looks around.
He’s looking for someone not stupid—
    one man, even, God-expectant,
    just one God-ready woman.

He comes up empty. A string
    of zeros. Useless, un-shepherded
Sheep, taking turns pretending
    to be Shepherd.
The ninety and nine
    follow the one.

Don’t they know anything,
    all these predators?
Don’t they know
    they can’t get away with this,
Treating people like a fast-food meal
    over which they’re too busy to pray?

Night is coming for them, and nightmare—
    a nightmare they’ll never wake up from.
God will make hash of these squatters,
    send them packing for good.

Is there anyone around to save Israel?
    God turns life around.
Turned-around Jacob skips rope,
    turned-around Israel sings laughter.
(The Message)

In 1888, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published his book, “The Antichrist.” Nietzsche used the phrase, “God is dead,” to express his idea that the Enlightenment, with its thorough rejection of all things subjective and intuitive, and the embrace of everything objective and observable, had eliminated the possibility of the existence of God.

Nietzsche simply named what a modern progressive society had become: drained of divine mystery. He wrote:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Friedrich Nietzsche

This was the nineteenth century equivalent of making the psalmist’s observation that there is a philosophy extant which states, “There is no God.” He’s gone. And humanity has replaced him with themselves.

Unlike Nietzsche, however, the psalmist takes the perspective not of the human but of God. The Lord looks about for someone wise, someone who truly takes notice to see with spiritual eyes, hear with spiritual ears, discern a spiritual touch, smell the aroma of God, and taste that the Lord is good – rather than relying solely on the five senses.

So, where is God? In the grave? No, he is risen, just as he said.

Just because there seems to be an absence of good in the world, doesn’t mean it isn’t there – or that God is gone.

Any fool can make bold proclamations when they are an epistemology all to themselves.

From God’s perspective, anyone can use their five physical senses. To only use them, and completely ignore other ways of knowing, is, well, plain stupid.

Where is God? Not hanging out with fools, drinking cheap dandelion wine and smoking nasty inexpensive cigars. Rather, the Lord is in the company of the righteous with wise persons who discern God’s presence.

Things are not always what they seem. Violence and oppression in the world are not signaling God is on vacation, doesn’t care, or simply doesn’t exist, at all. We must see beyond or through the world’s crud to a Divine Being who is there, reachable, and very much, cares about the state of humanity.

All our posturing and preening to appear we have it all together is nothing more than a poorly produced television reality show to God. So, if the Lord chooses to change the channel, it doesn’t translate that he isn’t viewing the screen. Only a fool believes no one is watching.

If we ignore God, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised or upset when divine Skittles don’t come raining down from heaven for us to enjoy.

Instead, we are to attend to the spiritual life. There are divine resources available if we will use them. Though they are abundant and free, we still have to ask and receive them with the humility which comes from realizing we aren’t the center of the universe.

Nietzsche is not exactly a person that many Christians would typically acknowledge, let alone refer to, and, for good reason. And yet, he understood that when God is removed from societal norms, it leaves us with a nihilist worldview (the belief that nothing has any inherent importance, and that life lacks purpose).

Christianity and/or a focus on the spiritual life can be, and is, I believe, an antidote to the despair of meaninglessness. If God is truly the ground of moral reality and gives real shape to human purpose, then we have a way to center ourselves. Yet, if God is ignored to the point of being “dead” then there is nothing substantial for humanity to orient their lives around.

Try as we might to create, as Nietzsche did, an Übermensch (superman) in the form of the radically independent and strong person to fill the enormous spiritual void of God’s death, it is merely a façade covering our weakness and foolishness as creatures.

I suggest we consider the psalmist as a reliable source of knowledge – that God is a force for justice and for good in the world – and that we explore what this means for us in our respective lives, families, communities, as well as in our public discourse and personal philosophy.

Is God gone? Not really. We humans just tend to give him the stiff arm.

Almighty God, you called your church to be one, holy, universal and missional people. By your grace you have given us new life in Jesus Christ, and by your Spirit you have called us to proclaim his name throughout the nations. Awaken in us such a love for you and your world that we may boldly proclaim Jesus Christ by word and deed. May all people everywhere come to know you and Christ’s power to save. Amen.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Solitude of the Heart

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So, he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

So, he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

So, Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. (New International Version)

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. - May Sarton

Appearances can be deceiving.

One of the best ways to see beyond mere physical sight is to engage in the spiritual practice of solitude. Solitude is not loneliness but a deliberate retreat from normal routines to be alone with the Lord.

The faith of both Samuel and David were strengthened through solitude. It prepared them for public service and made them godly. Because they had established patterns of being alone with God, they had an inward solitude even when in a crowd. That is why Samuel could have an interaction with the Lord, even when among lots of people.

Solitude is important because it is the true path to listening well.  A person whose faith has been shaped through solitude has an ability to carry on a dialogue with God while, at the same time, having a conversation with others.

Christ’s relationship with the Father was formed through solitude. Jesus was able to have simultaneous conversations with God and people since he practiced solitude on a regular basis. Jesus began his ministry with solitude (Matthew 4:1-11); made major decisions through solitude (Luke 6:12); and taught his disciples to practice solitude (Matthew 17:1-9; 26:36-46).

Solitude is necessary because engaging the world is important. Effective interaction with others requires times of retreat for solitude with God. Solitude as a spiritual discipline:

  • Gives us freedom from the need for constant noise and activity.
  • Allows God to shape our faith rather than conform to the world.
  • Liberates us from other people’s expectations for us.
  • Helps quiet internal noise and racing thoughts so we can better listen to God.
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection upon and preparation for future events.
  • Creates encouraging speech for the benefit of others.
  • Fuels a desire to keep practicing solitude because of its benefit.

Solitude taught Samuel obedience.

Samuel learned obedience through years of solitude with old Eli the priest. “Speak Lord, for I am listening” became a way of life for Samuel, as he was trained in how to listen well. 

Samuel’s greatness as the Judge of Israel did not lie in his original ideas or the initiatives he took, but in simple obedience to the commands of God. Years of obscurity and solitude as a child created the ability to hear and carry-out what the Lord told him to do.

Even Samuel, as godly as he was, could not rely on personal observations about choosing the next king of Israel. Because he had long years of practicing solitude with the Lord, Samuel was able to clearly hear divine speech and anointed the right person as king. Samuel did not trust his own judgment but relied on God’s direction.

Solitude characterizes God.

Christians serve a triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit. God has complete and perfect solitude along with focused engagement with humanity. Through spending time with God, people can simultaneously interact with divinity and humanity.

It is a bit like my wife who began her broadcasting career in radio by simulcasting the AM station in one ear of her headphones, and the FM station in the other ear. She could que a record for the FM station while, at the same time, forecasting the weather for the AM station. Her ability was born of practice and commitment to her craft.  In the same way, we have been given a vocation to engage the church and world, and the ability to have a solitude of heart while interacting with others.

God, unlike us, sees us completely, inside-and-out – which is why we are dependent upon solitude of heart so that we can make proper judgments. God urged Samuel to not look at the outward appearance because this is how wrong judgments happen.

Solitude formed David into a king.

David was on nobody’s short list to become king. He was so far out there as a candidate for the position that his own family did not even think it necessary to have him present for the sacrificial feast. It is just like God to have a way of choosing the people we think would be the least likely to do anything.

Being in the pasture day after day and night after night by himself was just the right curriculum that trained the next king. Shepherding was not a lonely affair for David. It was a rich experience of solitude which developed a solid relationship with God. Out in the field, away from all the wrong judgments of the world, David learned to discern God’s voice – a skill he carried with him the rest of his life.

Solitude is our path to spiritual maturity.

Solitude might seem unrealistic for extroverts, and only something for introverts. Yet, solitude is essential to creating a robust faith in God. The following are some steps toward the practice of solitude and allowing it to bring you into a closer walk with the Lord.

  1. Practice “little solitudes” in the day. The early morning cup of coffee or shower, the drive-time to work, the lunch break, the quiet at night when all is dark and everyone in bed are opportunities for solitude with God to reorient and redirect our lives.
  2. Find or create a quiet place designed specifically for solitude. It might be a room, a closet, or a chair. It might be outdoors. It can be anywhere that helps you be free from distraction and invites you to connect deeply with Jesus.
  3. Begin the day by spending at least 10 minutes alone with God in silence. Over time, work your way to even more minutes, even hours. I am a believer in an hour a day keeping the devil away. Eventually, take an entire day away, every few months. Consider taking a weekend or even a week away once a year.
  4. Read Holy Scripture slowly and meditatively. Listen to what the Spirit may be saying in your reading.  Keep a journal handy and write down your observations. Allow prayers to arise from what you hear from the Lord.

This might seem optional only for those with discretionary time – but it is no more optional than planting in the Spring to get a harvest in the Fall. Such fruit results in the slaying of giants….

**Above photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Overcoming the World

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and obeying his commands. In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:1-6, NIV)

Faith, love, and obedience are tightly woven together to such an extent that to pull one of them out is to unravel the whole bunch. These three characteristics of the true Christian are vital and necessary to living the Christian life. They all must be present for the church to overcome the world.

The main verbs throughout the verses are the word “is.” And the verb tense is key. The verb clearly describes a past action of God which we as people need to receive. In other words, the grammar dictates that God has given us new birth.  We do not give ourselves spiritual birth any more than we can tell our mothers that it was us who gave birth to ourselves.

God saves us from sin and grants us forgiveness. This action is from God. We are recipients of God’s good grace toward us. There are three participles connected to this main verb:

  1. Believe
  2. Love
  3. Obey

A participle is a word which is connected to the verb’s action. So then, our actions are a result of God’s action toward us. To put it simply, a person born from God will believe, love, and obey. Just as a newborn baby first breathes, then learns to eat, sleeps, grows-up, learns to walk, and over time develops into an adult just like their mother and father, so the Christian who is born again from God exhibits faith, learns to love, and grows up developing the skills of obeying Jesus and following him, learning to walk in his ways, becoming just like him.

In the same way a child must learn and grow to have the necessary skills for facing the world in all its bigness, trials, and temptations, so the Christian must develop the abilities necessary to overcome the world. Those skills are faith, love, and obedience. Without them, we will be unable to deal with the world. But with them, we experience victory over the world.

The word, “overcome,” is a cognate word (related to) of “victory.”  That is, to overcome is to have firsthand exposure to the victory the Lord Jesus has achieved on the cross. Through being spiritually born again by God, we are set on a course requiring faith, love, and obedience to overcome the world. As we learn to apply these three spiritual characteristics to our lives, we experience practical victory over the world.

The term “world” are the patterns, systems, and operations of the world in direct contrast to how God operates. For example:

  • The world engages in revenge and payback when wronged, whereas the Christian learns to believe God as the Judge, loves the person who has offended them through prayer for their enemy, and obeys God through good works that seeks the welfare of the other. 
  • The world uses other people as either objects of their pleasure or to get ahead in life, whereas the Christian believes God will take care of their needs, will seek to love the other person instead of use them, and would rather obey God than be selfish. 
  • The world thinks nothing of lying, cheating, and stealing, if they can get away with it, whereas the Christian believes Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, loves being a person of integrity, and obeys God even when it hurts.

This in no way means we avoid or belittle the world. In facing and overcoming the world, we need principled civility. Using faith, love, and obedience, we respect another’s viewpoint through growing in faith, expanding our hearts in love, and learning obedience through interaction with others for whom we disagree.

Where do we feel “the pull” in life from? Do we feel it from the world, or from God’s Word? We must learn how to deal with the worldly elements of our society in which we feel a pull and a tug to go along with it and want to give in to it. This requires a community of Christians engaging the world through faith, love, and obedience to overcome that pull.

Our call as Christians is not to just survive the world. If anyone could have had that kind of mentality, it was Helen Keller. Deaf, mute, and blind, she could have settled into just getting by and waiting for heaven. Yet, she accepted her situation, coped with it, and even transcended her limitations.  She did more than survive – she thrived. Helen Keller once said:

“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were not limitations to overcome. The mountaintop would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”

Helen Keller

We need faith in God, not ourselves. The Scripture says:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6, NRSV)

We need to love God and others, and not the world. The Scripture says:

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity. (1 John 2:15-17, MSG)

We need to obey the call of God, not the call of the world. Hear what Scripture says: 

The commandment that God has given us is: “Love God and love each other!” (1 John 4:21, CEV)

When faith, love, and obedience are working together as they were intended to, we will overcome the world and all its crud. We will keep ourselves from being polluted and stained by it.

Overcoming the world is a high calling from God. Faith means putting aside fear and taking the kind of risk God wants you to take. Love means putting aside hate and serving others, even when it hurts. Obedience means putting aside selfishness and choosing to do what is best for another person’s welfare. Being characterized by these three Christian virtues will have the effect of overcoming the world. It is not a burdensome or heavy way to live. It’s the way of Jesus.

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God whom we serve: Sometimes our hearts and minds are flooded with fears. Sometimes we are paralyzed and overwhelmed and feel unable to go on. Yet today we hold onto the victory you have accomplished through the blood of Jesus Christ. You have told us not to fear, for you have overcome the world. So, we cling to you, believing your Word and your promises. In moments of crippling fear, we choose to hold your hand and believe; to love as we have been loved; and, to obey even in the most fearful places because we know that you have risen again.

Loving Lord Jesus, we surrender to you all that we are and hope to be. Holy Spirit, we invite you and all your ministry within us. Holy God of all, we offer you our heart, mind, body, soul, spirit, hopes, plans and dreams. We surrender to you our past, present and future problems, habits, character defects, attitudes, livelihood, resources, finances, medical coverage, occupation and all relationships. We give you our health, physical appearance, disabilities, family, marriage, children, grandchildren, and friendships.

We ask for your Lordship over every aspect of our lives. We surrender to you all our hurt, pain, worry, doubt, fear and anxiety, and ask you to wash us clean. We release everything into your compassionate care. Speak to us clearly, Lord. Open our ears to hear your voice. Open our hearts to commune with you more deeply. Open the doors that need to be opened and close the doors that need to be closed. Set our feet upon the straight and narrow road that leads to everlasting life. Amen.